The decision to roll out the Smashing Pumpkins’ new album over several months was a wise one. The first act of ATUM: A Rock Opera in Three Acts was released all the way back in November 2022, while Act Two followed in January and Act Three arrived just last week. For most fans, all that new music would be more than enough. For the truly engaged, though, Billy Corgan also hosted a weekly podcast called Thirty-Three in which he premiered and dissected each song. That’s right: ATUM spans 33 tracks totalling two hours and twenty minutes. It’s billed as a sequel to 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and 2000’s Machina/The Machines of God, but it’s also a trilogy in its own right. You have to hand it to the true defenders of the uncool for tackling a 33-track space opera in the year 2023, but you’d have to be crazy to take it in all at once, which is why that release strategy made sense. And yet, “crazy” being a better descriptor of my disposition than “devoted Smashing Pumpkins fan,” that’s exactly what I did.
Unless you want to spend an extra hour in Corgan’s company for each 3-5 minute song that you hear (there are some longer ones, but we’ll get to them), the narrative arc of ATUM will probably slip by you. It continues the story of Shiny, the main character who first appeared on Mellon Collie, and it begins with him being exiled in space. It’s not exactly a metaphor for Corgan and the band’s trajectory but it’s also not not about him. It’s self-aware but not in a way that forces you to participate in whatever narrativizing is taking place, which, again, is smart optics. Even for those willing to sit through the entire album, it’s sort of designed in a way that allows you to dismiss that whole aspect of it. “It’s actually hard-baked in there that I would assume that most people won’t follow the story,” Corgan said in an interview with Rolling Stone. (He also noted that his bandmates initially responded to the concept with “a big shrug.”)
If there’s a central conceit to ATUM, it’s not the driving force behind it. So what is? It’s hard to tell, which is one of the album’s biggest weaknesses; it often sounds like Corgan is throwing a million ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks, or which songs stick better together. The ambition is always there, but not always the inspiration or follow-through. Though it’s far more guitar-driven and conceptually focused than its predecessor, 2020’s CYR, it suffers from the same problem of being merely serviceable even when it takes some risks. It’s just that ATUM tries a lot more things and pulls from a wider range of influences, so now we get an album that varies more in quality and style.
One could probably make the case that there is a positive progression throughout the three acts, but each section nevertheless feels like a mixed bag. Act One sets the tone by easing us into the theatrical scope of the album with a collection of songs that are different but not exactly dynamic, straightforward but not particularly catchy or impactful. Vaguely alluding to ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’, ‘Butterfly Suite’ disappoints by having too much sparkle and little resonance, while ‘When the Rain Must Fall’ is a romantic ballad with all the yearning stifled. You get the sense that the band is willing to let more light into their sound but falls short of materializing it: ‘Hooray!’ is goofy in a way that might translate if you’re actually watching the band perform it, while the radio-friendly ‘Beyond the Vale’ – an early sign that the heaviest tracks on ATUM rely on chugging more than actual riffs – ends up sounding rather anonymous. By contrast, songs like ‘The Gold Mask’, which concludes Act One, and ‘Avalanche’, which kicks off the next one, glisten with real conviction, from Corgan’s sincere delivery to a stunning solo from James Iha on the latter.
One of the synthier cuts on ATUM, ‘With Ado I Do’, is actually richer and more affecting than a lot of the songs on CYR. But even when they return to a more familiar rock sound, the album is too often marked by the same robotic production that hindered that album. While ‘Neophyte’ achieves the expected grandeur, its repetitiveness becomes cloying; ‘Beguiled’ is a fine single, but it strangely lacks the hint of weirdness that would set it apart (‘Empires’ does the no-frills rock thing much better). Fortunately, Act Three serves as LP’s most spirited and adventurous stretch, with both of the 8-plus-minute tracks offering enough to keep you engaged even if you have no investment in the album’s lore. The band even pulls off a decent experiment in power-pop with ‘Spellbinding’, which proves they can take the lighthearted synthpop route without sounding too dull. Overall, the strange thrill you can get from listening to the Smashing Pumpkins isn’t entirely absent on ATUM, but sometimes it felt like I could get the same feeling just by seeing Billy Corgan react to Yeat and save myself a couple of hours. Dig through the muck, though, and you’ll find the parts that shine.