A reflection on Billy Corgan and company’s most misunderstood LP
During the summer of 1998, I lived in the town where I went to college in a second-floor walk-up apartment overlooking a wooded swamp. The humidity was suffocating and my car’s transmission was busted most of the time, so walking everywhere was a necessity. Senior year lay immediately and fatalistically ahead. Horseflies were relentless; inhalation was incessant. There was prodigious perspiration. Most classmates I cared about had graduated or fled to parts unknown and some degree of despondency was in effect.
Single (as ever), I slept on a fold-out couch a close friend gifted me, tried and failed to complete Catch-22, pretended to toil at my campus library job, and refused to register to take the GREs. Late, humid nights were spent solo, Internet connection-free, in communion with my cheap stereo. Sonic Youth’s Silver Sessions for Jason Knuth. Boards of Canada’s Music Has The Right to Children. Bad Religion’s No Substance. Shellac’s Terraform. And most crucially of all: The Smashing Pumpkins’ Adore.
Adore – which celebrated its twentieth birthday earlier this month – should’ve been a disaster, unlistenable, overwrought, unsalvageable. A mess. Nobody would’ve blamed Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan one iota. Three years earlier, the alt-rock quartet’s Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness had conquered the world, and that was two years after its breakthrough Siamese Dream conquered the galaxy with an idiosyncratic brand of guitar rock that was at times yielding and at others unrelenting.
Then everything fell apart.
Drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was fired for heroin abuse after contributing keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin died of an overdose on the Mellon Collie tour. Corgan’s mother passed away; his marriage began to give way to a divorce. The Great Pumpkin responded in the only way that made sense to him in that moment: sidelining the band’s guitars, sluicing in strings and synthesizers, and embracing his inner goth with arms outstretched and hair shirt untucked.
Have you listened to Adore lately? You should, in conjunction with libations, as evening blots out late afternoon. It’s a far better album than you’ll have remembered, even if you remember it being exquisite. Tragedy sharpened Corgan’s songwriting instincts and deepened his lyricism to the degree that the man whose arena-ready bombast had erred on the cartoonish could convincingly create a nuanced, 73-minute long LP that’s best contemplated as a singular unit of music.
Mournful but never entirely morose, Adore felt like a nocturne tumble through the man’s dreams – propulsive, keening, tantalizingly diffuse, sometimes punishingly dense – and more than a few times in the summer of 1998 it surreptitiously supplanted my own waking reality. This isn’t a weeper, but a complicated fairytale, with every lyric – from “Who am I, to need you when I’m down” through to “You remind me of that leak in my soul” – imaginable in some impossibly ornate storybook script.
Adore’s songs lure texturally and thematically: “Shame” coming on like drowsy, grayscale Ennio Morricone, “For Martha” as a welling-eyed showtune, “Annie-Dog” as maudlin noir balladry, “Ava Adore” as icy, spiked-collar bot-pop that’s also somehow brimming over with an eminently human species of romantic yearning. A tune like “Tear” has hips, a groove that’s new to this band; “Perfect” isn’t, quite, but there’s an unbearable optimism at play there. What truly comes through here – what gives me chills even today, at a jaded and somewhat fried 41 years of age – is how nakedly earnest Corgan was on this album. There’s barely any bitterness. There’s mostly a vulnerability, a sincerity, even an idealism he would never (even when leading Zwan) proffer again at this intensity – a dangerous plank to crawl out onto in an era of withering irony.
Did I fancy myself clever, part of some brilliant vanguard, at 21? I did, yes indeed – sarcastic, biting, insufferable, punk. But when Adore was playing, none of that shit meant anything, because I was out there on the plank with Corgan, gazing into the void, drowning in feelings. I was in a dazed, meditating.
It’s odd to listen to “Blank Page” or “Once Upon a Time” today, and to think of what they seemed to mean back when they were new. When they were new, these were relaxed, acoustic Smashing Pumpkins songs, a detour in an infinite continuum. Albums would follow and the band would travel into new, exciting directions; we’d be along for the adventure. But now we know that Adore was a zenith, that creatively Corgan was peaking.
The lilting “Once Upon a Time” is the idealized version twilight acoustic hymn that songs on Mellon Collie and The Aeroplane Flies High gestured nobly towards. “Blank Page,” meanwhile, is a devastating masterstroke of loss that organically managed the trick of personalizing and universalizing despair. He meant every word; he was serious. Briefly and brilliantly, Billy Corgan gave no fucks and made the album he needed to make, creatively and cathartically, management and major label handlers be damned. He didn’t care.
When much of the Smashing Pumpkins’ audience turned away, starting with Adore – no onslaught of overdriven guitars, no credibility – Corgan began to care far too much, and gradually hardened into the semi-tone deaf troll, crank, and contrarian so many of us have a difficult time recognizing as an essential voice today.