I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.
Coming off the triple highs of Siamese Dream, Pisces Iscariot, and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (not to mention Earphoria, if you could get your hands on it [which you can easily now], and all the bootlegs and singles [including the Aeroplane Flies High box set]), the Smashing Pumpkins were riding a critical and popular wave that essentially allowed the band to pursue whatever course they wanted. We, the audience, knew, as did the band, that they could rock stadiums and clubs at equal measure, and like no other. But the curveball they delivered with Adore – surprising partly because of its songwriting and instrumentation, partly because of its flubbed marketing campaign, and partly because of the personal and professional crises that overshadowed the record itself – was a stylistic shift that we just may not have been ready for upon its release.
Let’s get the sad story out of the way first. Everybody knows it by now – during the Mellon Collie tour, keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin OD’d on heroin, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin did too, but got away with his life and some jail and rehab time. Bandleader Billy Corgan quickly sacked him and replaced him with Filter drummer Matt Walker for the remainder of the tour. The music community pondered aloud the Smashing Pumpkins future – what would come next after this tragedy, and how would Chamberlin’s replacement replicate his power, finesse, and innovation, an element so integral to the Pumpkins’ sound? And the personal hits kept coming, too: Billy got divorced. His mother, Martha Corgan, for whom the song “For Martha” was written, had died of cancer in 1996. What next?
According to interviews given in Guitar World magazine (via Wikipedia), the band announced that Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness would be the last conventional Smashing Pumpkins record, an unsurprising development in the wake of the overdoses. But advance word from the Pumpkins’ camp in the intervening months was that their next record would be their “techno” record, and the word “electronic” was tossed about quite a bit. Although both descriptions would prove irrelevant, the confusion had begun.
But before releasing their new full-length, the band made a couple of appearances on movie soundtracks – “The End Is the Beginning Is the End” was featured in the craptacular Batman and Robin, and “Eye” came out on the Lost Highway soundtrack. (According to Wikipedia, the former was the first to feature Matt Walker on a Smashing Pumpkins recording.) True to their word, the new Pumpkins songs headed in a new, electronic direction, more industrial than techno, with buzzing guitars and synths and crushing factory rhythms, enough to make Trent Reznor proud. The formula seemed to work – the songs were good – whetting the collective appetite for a record in this strong new direction.
But despite Reznorisms of lead single “Ava Adore” – complete with a lyric (“You’re the one that I adore / You’ll always be my whore”) that rivals (but does not quite equal) the nadir of Reznor’s own “Closer” (“I want to fuck you like an animal”), a song that put me off Nine Inch Nails for years – Adore was quieter, gentler, and more delicate than previous Pumpkins efforts, and more genuinely emotional when compared to the teen angst seething in their prior records. Corgan himself acknowledged this in Sachin Bansal’s article “The Smashing Pumpkins Chronology: The Adore Era: 1998” (via Wikipedia), saying, “[I’m not] talking to teenagers anymore. I’m talking to everyone now. It’s a wider dialogue. I’m talking to people who are older than me and younger than me, and our generation as well.” And this is reflected, for the most part (“Ava Adore” excluded), in the words, with Corgan really growing from arguably his worst collection of lyrics in Mellon Collie. (“Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage” from “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” is just one example of Corgan’s poor songwriting on the album, even though it gets a pass for nestling so completely into Smashing Pumpkins fans’ consciousness. [And full disclosure: I love Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.]) He also later referred to it as the Pumpkins’ acoustic record, a sentiment only half right, as there are also some fantastic electronically-tinged pop songs along the lines of Mellon Collie highlight “1979.” Regardless, the public wasn’t buying despite a bevy of critical praise. As for myself, I bought the record – I was a Pumpkins completist, and ready for anything – and although I liked it, it didn’t stick, and I shelved it for many years. At the time, I was 21 and really delving into indie, punk, math rock, and post rock, and a low-key Smashing Pumpkins effort wasn’t something I necessarily needed. As such, I stopped being a completist of the band at this time.
Revisiting Adore twelve years later reveals how well it’s aged, how fresh it still sounds. Either I’ve matured (um, some would say not likely), or the songs are just that good. What I saw then as soft and uneventful now came across as textured, nuanced, and rich. Despite the band’s sleek black outfits and makeup in the CD booklet and promotional materials, it’s not the “goth” or “industrial” or “techno” Pumpkins record – it’s simply a good Pumpkins record. The best and most enduring songs are those that meld the band’s ability to marry earworm hooks with driving rhythms, as well as those that feature universal language that everyone can latch on to. “Perfect,” “Daphne Descends,” “Apples and Oranjes,” “The Tale of Dusty and Pistol Pete,” and “Behold! The Night Mare” are some of the best songs the band has put together, filled with melancholy, longing, and hope. The 8-minute “For Martha” is a fantastic slow-builder and all-around great song, a possible successor to “Silverfuck” as a live closer. I can see it extending to two or three times its runtime in a concert setting, a mind-melting encore extravaganza.
There are some beautiful slower pieces too: “To Sheila” and “Blank Page” bookend the album with acoustic tenderness. The goth kids, in fact, can get into moodier tracks like “Tear” (rhymes with “pear”), “Crestfallen,” “Pug,” and “Shame.” And although “Annie-Dog” is an intesting little meditation, Corgan sings it with an affectation in his voice like he’s exhausted, grinding lyrics against his throat in an effort to make them sound hoarse. It’s a bit put on, and oddly distracting.
All in all, the critics have it right – this is an exceptional Smashing Pumpkins album, and an exceptional album in general. I’m glad I rediscovered it after so much time on the shelf.
Bonus – I have Adore demos on my iPod as well! It really speaks to Corgan’s talent that his demos sound like fully realized songs. What’s even cooler is that of the ten songs on here, only three made the album, allowing us a glimpse into the complete writing process, and giving us a chance to sift through the cutting-room floor. And of the three that made the album, we get an instrumental version of “For Martha,” a nice change of pace. “Chewing Gum” sounds like a straight-up West Coast indie rock track – pretty meaningless but fun, and a chance to hear Corgan working in a different genre than we’re used to. “Once in a While” is a piano-based trifle that backed the “Ava Adore” single. “Do You Close Your Eyes,” “My Mistake,” and “I Need You Around” (which would become “Blissed and Gone”) are all nice enough, but stronger songs made the album. “The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning” and vice versa (I’m not typing that again) are called “Batman 1” and “2” here (“1” is the fast version and “2” the slow), and both are great – it was nice to see “2” used in the trailers for The Watchmen when they first started appearing in theaters.
RIYL: SMASHING PUMPKINS, what else? OK, and Nine Inch Nails, New Order, and Bauhaus.