No one can accuse William Patrick Corgan of skimping on lore. He’s produced reams of it as a bandmateintervieweebloggerInfowars guestwrestling impresario, and tea-shop proprietor. His musical output with the Smashing Pumpkins is also lore-heavy, albeit haphazard: The band’s album discography has both a Vol. 1 without a Vol. 2 and a II without a I. That II, however, was a turning point for the Pumpkins, as Corgan (a notoriously prolific writer whose B-sides have shipped platinum) began setting formats and concepts loose upon each other. A singles campaign became an album; an album became “an album within an album”; that outermost album became an abandoned project. With ATUM: A Rock Opera in Three Acts, Corgan raises the stakes. He’s pitched it as the third in a retconned trilogy of concept albums that began with 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and continued with 2000’s Machina/The Machines of God.

Corgan’s previous attempts to cast Mellon and Machina as something more than good-to-magnificent alt-rock albums—he once teased Mellon Collie as The Wall for Gen Xers, and recruited professional animators and amateur sleuths to flesh out the story of Machina—were, in wrestling terms, a work. But on ATUM (pronounced, maddeningly, like the season) he sells the storyline like never before. The cover art suggests a space-rock album illustrated by Roger Dean; the stuffy subtitle places it in the distinguished lineage of Corgan’s beloved Savatage. Over 33 songs and two-plus hours, he presents the saga of Shiny, a has-been rocker (and incarnation of a character known on Machina as Glass, and on Mellon Collie as Zero) exiled into space for unspecified thoughtcrimes. As Shiny makes his unexpected return to Earth, a cadre of admirers and hackers desperately tries to remind the public of his significance, while the perfidious ruling class schemes to co-opt him for its own ends. 

The full story is sketched out in ATUM’s “lyric handbook,” but throughout this album’s protracted rollout (Part I was released in November, Part II in January), Corgan has been recapping the narrative on his debut podcast. Thirty-Three combines buzzy guests like Willow Smith and the voice of Roger Rabbit with Corgan’s Twitter Blue-grade takes on current events. When discussing ATUM with his solicitous co-hosts—both employees of the Corgan-owned National Wrestling Alliance—Corgan lavished far more attention on the text than the compositions.

All that extracurricular effort is necessary, because almost none of the narrative makes it to the actual recording. Even the larger plot points—or just the characters—of Corgan’s techno-libertarian saga are submerged at a level below subtext. Always inclined toward quaint turns of phrase, he’s reached a syntactical point of no return. His couplets scan like palindromes extracted from Coheed and Cambria lyrics. “In parried odes to thy mountains/The spirit of us was pungent laughter,” he declares on “Intergalactic.” On the squelchy, plaintive “Night Waves,” he muses, “Are we null at keel/Where mistakes appeal?” Oh shit, are we?

The result is a rock opera that coasts on vibes. Sometimes that vibe is simply Muse, as on the bombastic, backing vocalist-heavy “Empires” or “That Which Animates the Spirit.” Other times, it is unexpectedly peculiar. “Hooray!” is squelchy high-plains Hi-NRG, replete with Syndrum hits and an organ tone I last encountered on the Carrie Cleveland reissue. Within the story of ATUM, it’s performed by an animatronic band in a shuttered amusement park. (Discussing the song on the podcast, one of Corgan’s co-hosts asked him—in all innocence—“Is there a part of you that had an experience at an amusement park?”) The song is followed by the yearning synth-pop of “The Gold Mask,” which successfully lashes Future Islands to the delay effect from “I Ran (So Far Away)”. Doomy power ballad “The Culling” rides a slide guitar solo into a three-way conversation between Moog, soaring wordless vocals, and some of Jimmy Chamberlin’s most dramatic drumming.

Chamberlin gets his best opportunities to show out during ATUM’s final act, the set’s proggiest. The pace slows; the songs creep past the five-minute mark. It feels like Corgan and company are savoring their stroll to the finish, or maybe straining to leave a good impression. But this section stretches more than it soars and relies on invocation as a dramatic effect. There’s something fascinating, I suppose, in Corgan hollering “Zero! Zero! Zero!” like it’s a Saturday-morning superhero cartoon theme. But what do we get out of him whining “Glory glory, hallelujah”? Or “Agnus Dei”? (For fans of Pumpkins pronunciation, we get a “deus ex machina” sung like do sex machine.) It’s a relief when they invoke “Zero” as a song instead of a callback: There’s as much fun to be had in the oompah thrash of “Harmageddon” or the sighing groove metal of “In Lieu of Failure” as in the transparently goofy “Hooray!”

The stylistic flexes are enjoyable, but the bulk of ATUM is aimed squarely at modern rock radio. If you’re familiar with 2020’s CYR, you know the drill: streamlined synth-rock, only this time Chamberlin’s not platooning with an 808. Even so, the formula produces pleasures. Chamberlin stomps around Corgan’s sequencer on “Neophyte,” turning the singer’s rueful trudge into a disco strut. It’s almost as bold a choice as Corgan pronouncing the phrase “Philistine or Elohim” so it doesn’t rhyme. Penultimate track “Spellbinding” resolves the meter-shifting dream-pop pulse of its verses with a fist-pumping power pop chorus. “Take me away/I’m going to find you!” Corgan cries, trailed by a nice little .38 Special twin-guitar sting. “To the Grays” plays like a keening, synth-spangled take on “Dancing in the Dark”: The snare sound is more wack and there are a couple more references to burning fields of cosmic space. But the nervy pulse is there, and so is the romanticism, which is the true echo of the Pumpkins’ older work.

ATUM doesn’t necessarily suffer by comparison to past albums. Its highs are more modest. The ferocity is long gone. (At the end of the saga, having riled up allies and enemies alike, Shiny yeets himself back into space.) But in its own ponderous way, it is generous. And anyway, comparisons to past albums are kind of a Smashing Pumpkins trademark: Corgan has already announced that the band’s next project will be a “straight up rock’n’roll record” in the vein of Siamese Dream and, um, Mellon Collie. Perhaps the release of a fully realized—if obliquely written—rock opera has freed him from the gravitational pull of conceptualism. That, more than anything, would guarantee ATUM’s place in Smashing Pumpkins lore.

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The Smashing Pumpkins: Atum