Now that grunge has been consigned to radio stations' nostalgia playlists and mild, affable Chris Martin is the new face of alternative rock, what's poor old Billy Corgan to do? The current boomlet of '80s Goth-new-wave revival acts owes more to Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins than any of them might care to admit -- after all, Corgan was layering filched Joy Division riffs over washes of fuzzed-out guitars when the guys in Interpol were still in short pants.
But until now, Corgan hasn't been in a position to cash in. Personality conflicts put an end to the Pumpkins when they were only slightly past their prime (Corgan says the band may yet reform); Zwan, Corgan's capable, doomed follow-up band, met more or less the same fate. "TheFutureEmbrace," Corgan's first solo album, unless you count every other album he's ever made, is a Goth-rock valentine. It's a gentler, more textured record than anyone might have expected, light on hooks and heavy on atmospherics.
Backed by a band that includes Filter's Brian Liesegang and keyboardist-programmer Bon Harris (better not get too attached to them), "Future" is an earnest, thoroughly decent album that never really finds its footing. While the oft-imitated Pumpkins formula (take walls of guitars, add rage-filled lyrics; repeat) was due for replacing, Corgan has substituted synthesizers (not nearly as loud, or satisfying) and self-acceptance (he's in therapy) and come up with something more substantive but less involving.
"Future" is layered and subtle, full of measured, mid-tempo tracks thick with drum machines, muted guitars and the occasional string part. The few potential singles, such as the signature hard floaty opener "All Things Change," are catchy in the same way the best Pumpkins tracks were, which suggests that Corgan has either a limited imagination or, more likely, a deep understanding of the marketplace. Either way, it's a bad sign.
There are some genuinely affecting moments -- the bright, bristly "Mina Loy (M.O.H.)," the thrumming, in-love-with-the-kick-drum "A100," an exercise in retro-house-pop -- but "Future" feels closed off and airless. Corgan has always been the most frustratingly internal of songwriters; if it weren't for a reference to "the world" in "All Things Change," there would be little evidence he knew it existed. Couple this with a fondness for all things 1986 -- the synths, the use of New Order and house music as obvious reference points -- and "Future" begins to feel strangely frozen in place.
As if to emphasize the point, Cure frontman Robert Smith turns up for a deeply weird -- and wholly serious -- duet on the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody" (yes, really): That it fits so effortlessly says as much about the Bee Gees' previously undervalued gift for postmodern angst as it does about Corgan.
Corgan's evident love of difficult albums such as David Bowie's "Low" makes itself known in virtually every groove. With its emphasis on electronica and its choppy, subverted choruses, "Future" wants to be bolder than it is, but Corgan's experimental impulses are chained to his commercial ones. Neither adventurous enough to be his "Low" or pop enough to be "Siamese Dream" redux, "Future" feels like a compromise, an embrace of the indifferent middle.
Billy Corgan will perform Friday at the 9:30 club. The show is sold out.