William Patrick Corgan
Let’s start by defining our key concepts. William Patrick Corgan is the artist formerly known as Billy Corgan. This name change makes perfect sense because, as a name, Billy makes us think of loveable roustabouts or perhaps men who impulsively enlist to fight in a war (presumably in Vietnam) to avoid marrying an over clingy fiance (or at least that’s the subtext that I got). So it makes sense that the previously happy-go-lucky Billy Corgan would rebrand himself William Patrick Corgan for this collection of “serious” songs.
To be honest I’m a little surprised that Corgan has rolled out the full William Patrick Corgan persona at this stage, I had always assumed he was saving this up for his novel about an edgy Gen-X’er who, after his mother refused to buy him a pair of Reebok Pumps, spurned Western consumer capitalism for and off-kilter brand of petulant indifference, all the while maintaining a pretty sweet balance in his superannuation account. Where William/Billy goes to from here is open for debate but I’m guessing he’ll go with W.G. Corbin as his literary non-de-plume, which will be weird because it reminds me of W.G. Grace, though Corgan probably has zero knowledge of cricket (while I bet he’d love it if he just gave it a chance, this probably won’t register with him). Anyway, this is a side issue at best. I probably shouldn’t have brought it up.
Key concepts defined, we can now turn to some limitations of this study. I am of the generation where people are of two schools: those who have a minor, but not insignificant, out of body experience when they hear the opening bars of Cherub Rock, and those who don’t. I am in the former party. This will cloud everything from this point forward.
We all got a sense of Corgan’s mind set when the Smashing Pumpkins followed up Siamese Dream with Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness, a double album that was as ambitious as it was too long. We also got a shock when Billy Corgan shaved his head and all of a sudden looked massive. Seriously, go back and watch that clip for 1979 again, he looks massive.
So we all have some context with Corgan and his work. Ogilala sees him team up with producer Rick Rubin who’s production resume is both long and diverse (if not a somewhat confusing as a body of work that includes Slayer and Johnny Cash). Rubin and Corgan share the production here; Corgan doesn’t seem the type to take a whole hand off the steering wheel, and the fact that the album isn’t named BillyRubin seems like one of Western civilisation’s great lost opportunities.
From the initial thunder of the piano, album opener Zowie feels like a cover of a Delta Goodrem song, in fact, I remain convinced it is and no amount of evidence can sway me otherwise. The song has an odd vibe to it, like it could have been a hit for someone that was a proper good singer. But that probably isn’t really of concern to Corgan (see vague plot summary of his hypothetical novel in the second paragraph).
Ogilala continues with Processional which marks the first time Corgan and James Iha have collaborated together in over 15 years. Aside from this there’s nothing remarkable about the track, not to say that it’s bad, but it seems unnecessarily stripped back. After two or three listens you get the sense that this could have been a killer song, it just needs 10-15 subtle guitar tracks to help it bloom.
All of the above same can be said for The Spaniards (aside from the James Iha bit), but here the sense of lost potential seems a little greater. Later in the album Amarinthe and Shiloh also gives shades of vintage Corgan, with the latter maybe being the strongest track on the album. It’s in these moments when Ogilala makes the most sense, as a songwriter getting back to basics. Whether the listener wants these basics is another matter.
This is probably a key talking point here. By stripping things back Corgan is allowing his songwriting mastery to shine through, and the problem is in the past the mastery has been in the production. Corgan isn’t the voice of a generation that he perhaps thinks he is and the success of albums like Siamese Dream were more of product of youth culture at the time than Corgan’s innate talent. It’s like he’s trying to prove that he’s the gen-X Bob Dylan, but he’s not and perhaps more importantly, no-one really wants him to be that.
Aeronaut slides back in the mild balladry of Zowie but overall it sits more comfortably with Corgan’s voice. The Long Goodbye and Half-Life of an Autodictact pass by nicely enough but feel like b-sides of a golden era, almost good but kind of lazy. Antietam and Mandarynne both meander their way through themselves and almost break through to something more, but ultimately they just kind of exist.
The album closer Archer sees Corgan swimming between flags of his vocal range and feels like it could be an out-take from Mellon Collie. It brings the album to a pleasant end and is an example of how these songs could be done well. It doesn’t try to over-dramatise the music, it doesn’t try to overemphasise Corgan’s mediocre lyrics, it just treats the song as it should be treated.
Overall Ogilala feels like an album of stripped back acoustic versions rather than an album of acoustic songs. Then again maybe I just miss the fuzz wall of a Russian Big Muff running through each track. Having conceded that, you have to kind of question Rubin’s production; acoustic guitar driven songs don’t have to lack a dynamic element, which is what the Ogilala songs ultimately lack. It just leaves the question of why did you do it like this? Why did you change your name to a proper sensible adult name from the 1950s? If this is a statement, then why isn’t there a statement?
Earlier I suggested that this album should have been called BillyRubin, a humorous pun on bilirubin. But this name seems strangely apt. Bilirubin helps the body to break down, and in turn expel, the waste from decaying red blood cells. It literally helps us get things out of our system. Maybe Ogilala is something that William Patrick Corgan just had to get out of his system and maybe in doing so it’s a step towards him doing something greater. That idea sits well for a while, it kind of resolves some lose ends, but then we have to come to terms with the fact that everything Corgan has done seems to be something he needed to get out of his system.
This album isn’t really a phrase or a new beginning or a line in the sand of a patchy career, it’s just another thing that Billy Corgan has done. Which is fine for everyone, with the possible exception of Billy Corgan.