Smashing Pumpkins make a deep summer-hits album
by Brett Milano
Smashing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan has spent much of his career in search of the perfect guitar solo. Ironically, he finally plays it during Adore (out this week on Virgin), an album that has almost nothing to do with guitars. The climactic solo -- the only one on the 70-minute disc -- occurs during "For Martha," the fourth in a string of aching, semi-acoustic ballads that fills most of the album's second half, and the album's fifth song with a woman's name in the title. By the time "For Martha" comes along, he's obsessing over a failed affair, pulling the sort of rhymes that heartsick teenagers tend to scrawl into their diaries ("But for the grace of love, I'd will the meaning of Heaven from above"). In short, the album threatens to go over the edge into pure sentiment. But then comes that solo, a beautifully majestic thing that takes the song's simple tune to a higher place. Compared with their massive, layered guitar parts of old, this is nothing, just a repeated riff played on one weedy fuzz guitar. But it's exactly the notes and the tone he needed to get the sound of a heart opening and hope breaking through.
It's a watershed moment for Corgan, who's always been more of a gifted craftsman and less of an emotional wreck than he's cared to admit. His self-image problems should be familiar to anyone who's followed the band. For years he reminded writers that Smashing Pumpkins were the geeky outcasts of the Chicago scene, even when they were among the country's most popular bands. When I interviewed him before the release of Siamese Dream, in 1993, he claimed to be nervous about laying himself so bare in that album's songs. Still, that disc struck a lot of listeners, myself included, as nothing more or less than a guitar thrill ride. Sure, the dark undertones were there, but if unvarnished sensitivity was what you wanted, Nirvana and Jeff Buckley were still around. At the time, the Pumpkins were doing the equally important job of putting soul back into arena rock, though Corgan appeared convinced that theirs was only music for and by introverted losers.
Even when Corgan produced his masterpiece, he felt obliged to deflate it just a little -- what kind of self-saboteur would write the most hopeful music of his career, then saddle it with a title like Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness? Probably destined to be the band's best album, that 1995 epic was where Corgan's ambitions fully outran his depressive tendencies. In part a farewell to grunge ("Despite all my rage I'm still just a rat in a cage" will go down in history as that era's last catchphrase), in part a re-embracing of the art-rock, concept-album ethos, it proved that Corgan's reach was too broad to fit one mood or one style. There was as much reassuring pop as miserable rock, plus enough Pink Floyd grandeur to court the oh-wow factor. And it showed Corgan getting more comfortable with big rock-star gestures -- not the least of which was the following year's boxed set The Aeroplane Flies High, which fetched one of the highest prices ever charged for a bunch of B-sides.
On the surface, Adore is a total reversal of direction. It's the first non-epic Pumpkins album, the first with almost no lead guitar, and the first where the songs are immediate enough to be grasped in the first handful of listens. Most of all, however, it's a fine emotional wallow -- the first time Corgan's sounded just as dysfunctional and oversensitive as he's always claimed he was. Of course, such an album makes perfect sense in context, given the band's recent experience with heroin-induced tragedy (touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin OD'd at the start of the Mellon Collie tour; junkie drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was sacked soon afterward). Although nothing on Adore refers explicitly to those events, on some level the whole album does. "Daphne Descends" and "Tear," in particular, make good use of the ever-popular heroin/obsessive-love metaphor. But Corgan made the right move by running with the obsession theme instead of writing 15 variations on "The Needle & the Damage Done." The wounded-love songs on Adore humanize him by showing that the causes of his infinite sadness are the same as anybody else's.
If I've just made Adore sound like a glorified solo album, that's because it already sounds like one. If the other Pumpkins were low-key on previous efforts (nobody's ever denied the persistent rumors that Corgan played everything but the drums on the first two), they're practically invisible here. At least bassist D'Arcy Wretzky gets in her trademark vocal cameos -- which, as usual, are placed at the beginning and end of the disc. But the programming largely benches the rhythm section, which includes a handful of guest drummers (mostly Matt Walker, though ex-Soundgardener Matt Cameron plays on one track). And it's no wonder that co-guitarist James Iha had enough time on his hands to make a solo album.
Corgan's real collaborator here is computer specialist Flood -- who gets a mixing credit on most tracks -- along with the various programmers and digital editors. With the guitars largely stripped away, it's the rhythm loops that define the instrumental sound. They're up front on the loud numbers ("Ava Adore" cops one of Trent Reznor's favorite sheet-metal sounds, and it has the album's only use of the trademark Corgan vocal sneer), and thrumming in the background of the acoustic songs. But as they did on U2's Pop, Flood's loops usually cushion the band's sound, providing a subtler feel than their own rhythm section would. If there's such a thing as an acoustic electronic sound, Flood invented it. The first result on Adore is that Corgan's hooks and vocals have to carry most of the weight, something that would have been impossible in the Siamese Dream days. The second is that his new-wave inclinations emerge stronger than ever before ("Pug" comes dangerously close to appropriating the synth riff from Gary Numan's "Are 'Friends' Electric?"). And it makes more sense that he spent part of last year collaborating with Ric Ocasek, another guy who wrapped obsessive love and electronic cool into a radio-ready package.
In fact, Adore aims to be the kind of seasonal soundtrack that Ocasek always made with the Cars, whose albums were invariably released in the summertime. It's the kind of album you're supposed to hear on the radio all summer and associate forever with whatever romantic adventures you have over the next three months -- that's the Top 40 aesthetic in a nutshell. But even a modest Smashing Pumpkins album is still bound to be fairly epic, and Adore doesn't need all 15 of the tracks it's got (though I'd swear that Corgan deliberately put three weak songs right before "For Martha," just to make the latter sound that much more dramatic). If some of the songs are less memorable than others, at least nothing compromises the album's emotional tone. It all sounds like stuff Corgan desperately needed to get out of his system during these sessions.
If it seems contradictory for an album to be both emotionally
overwrought and hit-singles-oriented, that may be because you've
heard too many novelty songs on the radio lately. And like all
the best modern pop, the peaks of Adore show how daring a hit
song can get. With its chorus of "We must never be
apart," the first single, "Ava Adore," will
probably strike a lot of listeners as a straight-up love song,
before they realize the true nature of its pledges ("It's
you that I adore/You'll always be
my whore/I'll pull your crooked teeth/You'll be perfect just like me") -- this is one of the more poisonous valentines since R.E.M.'s "The One I Love." The opening "To Sheila" really is a love song, and a gorgeously understated one; "Tear" is equally lovely in its overstatement -- Beatle-ish strings, violent images, sudden ending and all. "The Tale of Dusty and Pistol Pete" is as spare as the album gets -- it's not even produced enough to be the country song that the title promises -- but it's
pretty and creepy, and proof that Corgan can now write songs that stand on melody alone.
Given recent events in pop culture, a title like "Ava Adore" is bound to have a double meaning -- quick, what other singer was dangerously obsessed with a girl named Ava? Yes, this disc is a spiritual descendant of the heartbroken concept albums (notably In the Wee Small Hours and Only the Lonely) that Frank Sinatra was making four decades ago, when Ava Gardner was still fresh on his mind. So there's nothing new about the mood Corgan creates on Adore, but there doesn't have to be: a set like this can work only if the singer knows how to suffer. Not only would Frank approve, so will sad romantics everywhere.
Source: The Boston Phoenix