Over the course of a few years in the mid-’90s, the Smashing Pumpkins grew from college rock buzz band to alternative rock institution. But just half a decade later, the group’s split was already a forgone conclusion to fans and critics alike. The shaping forces of mainstream acceptance had dug deep into the band’s flesh, afflicting its sound as well as its internal operations.
A devout Pumpkinhead since 1993’s Siamese Dream forever altered my understanding of what music could mean, I had followed the band through the glory days of their ambitious and commercially successful double-album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (still the best-selling double CD of all time) to the musically disparate, but still intimate and beautiful Adore, then on to the frustrating Machina: The Machines of God, and finally to the lost hooray, the “illegally” distributed and aptly-titled Machina II: The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music. When the announcement of the breakup came, I was chagrined, but not surprised. Mostly I looked forward to the future and imagined the treasures my favorite musicians would bestow upon me in years to come.
In December 2000, Billy Corgan and original drummer Jimmy Chamberlin got back together to form Zwan, whose 2003 debut, Mary Star of the Sea, featured some great songs but ultimately failed to live up to my lofty expectations as well as those of its perfectionist frontman. Seeing them live in San Francisco just a few feet from the stage, I could sense that the magic of the Pumpkins had not yet been rediscovered. After the show, I met Billy Corgan at a meet and greet. He was humble and sweet, offering a handshake and a signature. But when asked his opinion about playing in San Francisco, he turned cold and responded with a veiled apology for the evening’s mediocre performance. Still, he and Chamberlin had comprised a potent duo, and were still able to blend precision and power through the inviolable glue of deep-felt passion and technical skill.
After Zwan abruptly called it quits (rather, Corgan did, citing that his heart was still in the Smashing Pumpkins) in September 2003, despite having written enough material for three more albums, Jimmy and Billy officially embarked on solo missions for the first time since they had started playing together in 1989. Corgan temporarily entered the world of modern poetry, ultimately releasing the collection Blinking With Fists in late 2004. By then he was already deeply entrenched in another project – his first solo album, due later this spring.
Chamberlin, in the meantime, just disappeared. That is, if he had ever even appeared. One of the most skilled and influential drummers of the ’90s, Chamberlin has had his share of debilitating drug problems. Culminating in the death of Smashing Pumpkins touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin and Chamberlin’s own overdose during the Mellon Collie tour, the drummer’s habit led to his dismissal from the band during the ensuing Adore years. In many ways the band’s mystery character, he was always reluctant to even so much as tiptoe into the limelight, despite or perhaps because of the Pumpkins’ rapidly attained fame and fortune. I had become only modestly acquainted with him through bootlegged interviews and the 1994 home/concert video Vieuphoria.
Jimmy’s meek, camera-shy demeanor in the press has ever been a stark contrast to his standout drumming. Thus Life Begins Again is a record that had to happen, yet nobody really saw coming. “It seems hard to believe that just seven months ago [other band member Billy] Mohler and I were standing in a room looking at each other and scratching our heads, wondering what this record was going to sound like,” Jimmy posted on the band’s website on the day the record was released. Even I, insatiable consumer of all the latest Pumpkins-related news, was caught by surprise. With this resolute step, Chamberlin once and for all stepped out from the shadow of William Corgan, Jr.
Beating his ex-bandmate to the solo record chase by a few months, the album is a more significant step for Chamberlin than Corgan’s forthcoming release could ever be for him. Its title may sound clichéd, but is in fact completely sincere – after so many years in the business, Chamberlin took time to reevaluate his life and career, and what he found truly led him to a new beginning. All of this is chronicled lovingly and faithfully on the album. With Jimmy’s hand holding the master pen, he finally gets to tell his story, both lyrically (although he doesn’t actually sing on the album) and through his singularly expressive drumming. Even the band being named after him is a sort of spiritual revelation – it seems he has finally embraced what we always knew he had. The “Complex” part of the name may be a nod to the musician’s protective yet self-destructive psyche.
When used as an adjective, the word also works well to describe the album’s sound. Less pretentious than the Pumpkins since their 1991 debut Gish, but no less ambitious, Life Begins Again as a whole could best be described as heavy, progressive jazz-rock. Chamberlin was a jazz drummer before joining the Pumpkins (as were his father and brother), so it’s no surprise to fans that Life Begins Again is grounded in jazz. But showing Chamberlin’s full range as a musician and songwriter, the tones switch and sway between distorted and clean, heavy and soft. The record reminds me of what it felt like to hear Siamese Dream for the first time: the sense that a new world was opening up before me, that I couldn’t be in the same room as this music and not need to make it the center of my attention, that I was instantly developing intense relationships with the songs.
“Streetcrawler” bravely kicks off the record with a heavy, proggy feel that recalls Porcupine Tree at their most succinct. Then the more straightforward “Life Begins Again,” a college rock masterpiece in hiding. Melodic, grungy, dynamic, and passionate – with a tinge of psychedelia – it sounds like something that could have come from the Gish sessions had the Pumpkins known themselves better at the time. Bringing Billy Corgan into the mix more ostensibly, the gentle lullaby “Loki Cat” features vocals from the man whom you’d never believe once evinced angst so decisively in “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.”
As the minutes tick by, the album continues its journey through Jimmy Chamberlin’s new life. “Love is Real” opens mellow and melodic, but turns tense with the verse: “It’s my heart that tells me so / and I feel love is real / Love is real / Love is real.” True love may be real, but singer Rob Dickinson reminds us that it is often easiest when it is merely dreamt. From there to the aggressive jazz-rock of “Owed to Darryl,” and then the hypnotic “Neverwaves,” which on each repeated listen draws me in deeper, blurring the line between experienced and imagined reality. With an album thematically rooted in life’s more spiritual lessons, listening naturally becomes quite transcendent. “Loki Cat Reprise” wraps things up appropriately, as Chamberlin’s trademark tumbling drums usher us out over Mohler’s chiming guitar.
Life Begins Again continues the tradition of the Pumpkins’ finest work in a new direction, with a familiar zeal for the pure pleasure of creating excellent music. All Jimmy Chamberlin needed was his drum set and two wooden sticks to start the world turning again. Now I’m just waiting for him to take that momentum and reunite with an old friend.