By Brendan Nagle
To listen back to The Smashing Pumpkins’ bizarre fourth album “Adore” is to hear a band at a crossroads. Prior to its release 20 years ago, conflicting label reports confused the press by describing the album as both “acoustic” and “techno.” The final product lies somewhere in between, but its bizarreness has less to do with its content than its context: the band had just followed up perhaps the greatest rock record of the decade, “Siamese Dream,” with an equal parts bloated and brilliant 28-track double album, “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” that in spite of its unwieldiness was somehow more successful than its predecessor. The band’s first three albums (including their debut “Gish”) form a linear progression, each an expansion of their blistering, guitar-heavy sound, but “Adore,” with its electronic-tinged balladry, is something of a sonic left turn. The sprawling nature of “Mellon Collie” left little else for the band to explore in the hard-rock vein, leaving only one option: to try something completely different. Unsurprisingly the album disappointed fans and critics, but looking back now without the media circus and impossible expectations, we can better recognize its value.
The band were never strangers to slower songs or synthesizers –– they’ve always balanced heftier tracks with more serene contemplations, and “Mellon Collie” boasts its fair share of experimental electronic textures. “Adore,” however, is odd in that it does away with nearly every element that had defined the Pumpkins to this point. Gone are the guitar licks dripping with distortion, Billy Corgan’s howling vocals and teenaged-irreverence, and Jimmy Chamberlin’s furiously distinctive drumming. In their place is a sequence of ethereal synthesizer arrangements and loping drum-machine patterns that envelope Corgan’s murmurs about death and doomed romance.
The success of “Mellon Collie” single “1979,” one of that album’s notable explorations in electronica, is often credited as the reason for their sonic pivot, but with the exception of a few tracks, nothing on “Adore” actually bears much resemblance. The electronic flourishes are an effective means of sprucing up an otherwise simple little song, but “1979” has obvious commercial appeal regardless –– that’s something that can’t be said for most of “Adore.” Previously The Smashing Pumpkins’ aims had always been unabashedly commercial, but this album represents an ethos that runs counter to their previously arena-sized ambitions. There are few radio-friendly hooks, hardly any sizzling guitar solos and most of the songs’ studio-reliant instrumentation doesn’t translate well to live performance. “Adore” is largely anti-anthem, anti-stadium, and even anti-commercial, while “1979” is just the opposite –– a hooky rocker ripe for sing-alongs.
The song’s nostalgic reflection on teenagehood does, though, provide a worthwhile segue into the more mature themes of “Adore.” Here Corgan is definitively framing his adolescence as a thing of the past –– he’s beginning to sing about teenagers, rather than for them –– and songs like “Perfect,” an ironic commentary on the myth of “perfect” love (and the “Adore” track that sounds most like “1979”), continue this adult progression. While I could never deny the pleasures of listening to Corgan snarl that “God is empty just like me,” the somber tenderness of most of “Adore”’s lyrics are a welcome surprise.
Even for a band so infamously unstable as The Smashing Pumpkins, the recording sessions for “Adore” were marred by a considerable amount of tumult. In addition to Corgan’s usual overbearing meticulousness, his marriage was falling apart, and the band was dealing with two tragedies: the fatal heroin overdose of touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin, and the passing of Corgan’s mother after a battle with cancer. References to these, particularly the death of Corgan’s mother, are present throughout, but the album is rather striking in its calmness. Where Corgan’s songwriting and performances on previous records could often be described as tortured, he sounds almost at peace here, even amid such personal strife. On “Appels + Oranjes” he poses a number of philosophical questions over a propulsive drum-machine rhythm and smooth synthesizers (“What if the sun refused to shine?/What if the clouds refused to rain? … What if what is isn’t true? … What if what is isn’t you?”), but the bratty, nihilistic edge that we might expect is absent. He’s not asking merely to make a point, but asking because he’s curious. “Crestfallen” contains similar questions and self-doubt. “Who am I?” he asks repeatedly, in various forms. The answer is delivered in the second-person, but undoubtedly applies to the speaker as well: “And as you were/You’ll be again/To mold like clay/To break like dirt.” It’s a bleak sentiment, surely, but there’s something oddly comforting to it as well. We’re all just dirt, he reminds us, and wrapped up in the song’s warm piano lines such a humbling reminder feels soothing rather than disturbing.
“Once Upon A Time” and “For Martha” are the two songs most obviously about Corgan’s mother, and, again, they bear a surprising peacefulness given their subject matter. In “Once Upon A Time” he begins by crying out “Mother I’m tired” like a child looking to curl up and sleep in her lap. He is clearly still haunted by her loss (“Restless, still, I drive/Try to leave it all behind”) but the song is dominated by major chords, hinting perhaps that though the words are anguished, he’s singing from a place of resolution. This suspicion is confirmed by “For Martha,” which comes nine tracks later and functions almost as a response. The eight-minute slow-burner begins with just piano before building to a crescendo of drums and, finally, something resembling a guitar solo. In it Corgan tells his mother that “If you have to go, I will get by.” He seems to have accepted her passing, understanding that eventually he will see her “on the other side.” Maturity is not typically something associated with the notoriously provocative frontman, but faced with a myriad of grown-up problems he responds with remarkable grace.
“Adore” is also the first Pumpkins album to not feature drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, who was kicked out of the band as a result of his continued struggles with heroin addiction. Corgan had already begun experimenting with programmed drums, but Chamberlin’s absence forced his hand: finding someone to match the drummer’s unique talents would have been near-impossible, so the band adopted an entirely new rhythmic style. “Ava Adore” is probably the track closest to “Mellon Collie”-era Pumpkins, but Corgan fashions it with in-your-face electronic drums that would sound just as at home in a Massive Attack song. “To Sheila,” the album’s standout, makes subtler use of synthesized drums, burying them so deep in the mix that they’re almost imperceptible, which lends the acoustic guitar-driven song a suitably gentle pulse. Light piano melodies, synth swells and even a banjo delicately weave themselves through the fingerpicked guitar chords, lending Corgan’s voice an emotional backing. “You make me real” he sings, the simplicity of the lyric belying its plain profundity. Leading with “To Sheila” may have been a mistake, as never again does the record reach such a sublime blending of acoustic and electronic.
If “Adore” has a problem it’s in its length. Though just over half the runtime of “Mellon Collie,” “Adore” can be even more challenging to listen to all the way through. “Mellon Collie” is long, but it at least contains a range of dynamics, balancing its hard-hitting riffs with meditative ballads and interesting experiments. No song on “Adore” reads to me as genuine filler––they’re all good in isolation––but in sequence they begin to run together, which can make for a flat listening experience. This is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact it is what gives the album such a distinctive atmosphere. Pianos and synth pads and drum machines and Corgan’s raspy voice all coalesce, forming one gray, pensive whole. Where the songs of “Siamese Dream” are designed to be blasted out of stadium speakers, “Adore” plays best through headphones, alone on a rainy day. 20 years later we can see it as not a misstep, but rather a step sideways, and a worthwhile one at that.