[Originally published January 3, 2016]
Nineteen ninety-seven: Catapulted to superstardom by the massive epics Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the Smashing Pumpkins found themselves at the forefront of mid-90s alt-rock. Billy Corgan’s signature snarling vocals, shrieking guitar, cryptic lyrics, and bald head helmed the band and helped established them as the premiere arty, angsty eccentrics of the post-grunge era. However, the years following the exhausting Mellon Collie tour were among the group’s most tempestuous. Corgan separated from his wife, lost his mother to cancer, developed an addiction to downers and ecstasy, and saw his close friend and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin part ways with the band. Still, he and co-founders D’Arcy Wretzky and James Iha soldiered on, with session drummers Joey Waronker (Beck), Matt Walker (Filter), and Matt Cameron (Pearl Jam, Soundgarden) in tow, and continued their recording sessions. Despite all this turbulence, the end result was Adore—possibly the most cohesive and lovely record the Pumpkins (now basically Corgan and whoever he chooses to surround himself with) have ever released.
As a whole, Adore is remarkably understated—a notable departure from the sonic grandiosity of its predecessors. In other words, there’s nothing here quite so gritty as, say, “X.Y.U.” or “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.” Even the heavier guitar-driven tracks, such as the intense, Gothic “Daphne Descends” and the angry dirge “Tear,” sound oddly quiet. Yet, for all their subtlety, the songs still feel huge, abounding with the Pumpkins’ magical, chilling melodies and exhilarating chord changes. (I found “The Tale of Dusty and Pistol Pete,” “For Martha,” and the spacy album closer “Blank Page” particularly swoon-inducing.)
Musically, the album possesses a somewhat narrower palate than the sprawling Mellon Collie—its 74 minutes are chiefly occupied by dark, shoegazy love songs—but is by no means lacking in ambition. The band’s growing fascination with electronics is apparent throughout—see “Appels + Oranjes,” “Pug,” and the breezy “Perfect,” which even feels a lot like a revamping of the runaway hit “1979.” The sad, sublime “For Martha” morphs itself into a full-fledged rock epic over the course of eight minutes, with Mellon Collie-esque piano giving way to a grand climax. Some of the record’s best moments, however, are its quietest; opener “To Sheila” is a serene ballad filled with quavering piano and whispering guitar, and the barebones piano number “Annie-Dog” is almost disorienting in its starkness.
The songwriting feels substantially different as well. Corgan—a man known for bombastic arrangements and lyrical flights-of-fancy—confines himself to Earth’s gravity to present us with some of his most straightforward, least pretentious songwriting to date. His words traverse familiar territory—lust, angst, depression, confusion and loss—with the difference being that the writing sounds less flashy and more mature, often revolving around simple, repeated refrains—We must never be apart. You make me real. You love him. You were never meant to belong to me. The voice that spoke directly to a nation of angst-ridden teens on Mellon Collie has grown up considerably.
Ultimately, Adore was a critically polarizing effort that splintered the Pumpkins’ fanbase and experienced minimal commercial success, but it certainly doesn’t deserve the lot it received. It’s a melancholy, darkly beautiful, compelling work that in many ways feels like the logical next step from Mellon Collie. After an overwhelming and emotionally taxing journey through vast sonic landscapes, the band retreats into more peaceable environs—and creates a new kind of magic in the process. (9.0/10)