“The problem with this particular Smashing Pumpkins disc being…”
Actually, that’s not a grand place to start; should you be named Billy Corgan, and therefore harbour an understanding of life, love and miscellaneous that doesn’t necessarily segue with the views held by the rest of us, messy records full of oblique context are invariably one end result.
Which isn’t all-out dismissal of the Smashing Pumpkins canon; rather, it’s an acknowledgement that we’re venturing into complex territory. One in which gunmetal shades hang in counter-intuitive patterns, and into play arrive wider levels of interpretation. As I write these words the day trickles down like so much rain, the stacks of vinyl (and let’s face it; a compact disc or two may feature somewhere) littering the floorboards as if monuments of a lost civilisation. From Gish (1991) through to the brute millennialism of 2000’s Machina/The Machines Of God, I was present on the journey; a passenger through which Corgan’s increasing levels of solipsism were writ in incrementally larger letters. I’m writing about Adore (first out in ’98) because of the recent collector’s edition re-release (6xCD plus a DVDs worth of outakes, demos, live material, alternate mixes and the entire album in mono – I’ll leave it up to yourself to decipher how necessary such an exercise is), but let’s be honest, here – I could be musing upon the grandiloquence of any Pumpkins LP; the difference between each (if we park line-up flux for a minute) being hewn from scale.
Should we be in the business of throwing adjectives around the band’s fourth studio LP, I’d suggest muddy, confused, cold. I may even make a parallel with Pink Floyd of the late 70’s / early ’80’s, when Roger Waters was busy exorcising (or perhaps just exercising) his own demons at the expense of both band and accessibility. Adore isn’t misanthropic in intent (when I’d suggest that both Waters’ The Wall and The Final Cut are), but it also fails to disguise its own disfigurement. If the truest form of art is born of crisis, this could have been a classic (see: The Holy Bible by The Manic Street Preachers. Also: the majority of Give It Back! By The Brian Jonestown Massacre). Instead, this is LP as testament to an unravelling that’s so, so hard to empathise with (especially when listening to this record here in 2014, when context grows cloudy and our attention may be elsewhere). Themes betrothed to death and disassociation, mirroring the struggles of both Corgan’s private life (including the loss of his mother) and a band ethos that had all but disintegrated (an oft-told tale nonetheless intrinsic to how Adore functions; I’ll refer you to your local neighbourhood search engine if you’re not familiar with the back-story, but it’s safe to say that it’s heavily reliant upon fracture, disengagement, hard drugs, dismissal of a drummer whose jazz-infused rhythms were pivotal to the success of earlier LPs, bile and embitterment, and yes – alas – more death).
Perhaps worse, Corgan takes his ear for a hook and misplaces it amidst the rubble, the transposition of intimate ballad and Uncle Fester corp-America goth shtick incomplete, and essentially unsatisfying. We’ve all embarked upon endeavours of one type or other that have succumbed to misappropriation by outside events (I’m particularly thinking of matters of the heart here, but that’s just one example), and Adore flails around in such a void. Solo vision, and a solo album (in execution if not by name; guitarist James Iha was preoccupied with his own (underwhelming) solo disc; bassist D’arcy Wretzky was travelling down her own, drug-induced cul-de-sac that would result in another firing; Jimmy Chamberlin’s vacant drum stool was occupied by a rotating cast of less fluent stick-men alongside the ancillary programming). Hence lead single ‘Ava Adore’ is an over-produced slice of cloying melodrama, any nuance or rough edge erased by posturings of a then-voguish, template electronica. Follow up ‘Perfect’, whilst sitting atop a meaty guitar riff, is also swallowed up by a discombobulated slickness ill-suited to the subject matter. And as for the material not to appear on 7” – sixteen tracks in total is a challenging environment in which to sustain a journey through psyche; for every element that does work (the fuzzy, flicker-cam of ‘Pug’; the restrained, piano/bass fugue of ‘Annie-Dog’; ‘Black Page’, full of dreamy motifs and a retro-synth application), there’s a significant amount of slack that fails to take attention away from self-indulgence. ‘Crestfallen’ is a dull exposure. ‘Once Upon A Time’ could have been written by Roger Walters. Even ‘For Martha’ – Corgan’s attempt at Lennon’s ‘Julia’ – carries a mawkish quality in which the musical / lyrical hangings run counter-parallel to each other.
Adore isn’t an easy album to listen to – I doubt it was ever designed as such. Yet unlike records similarly focused upon the emotionally challenging – Lou Reed’s exemplary Berlin LP, for example – the framework in which the themes operate speak of a synthetic nature. One in which hope is strangely absent, or at least drowned out by application (and an unsympathetic production). And maybe that’s unfair (at least to a point); Corgan – or, more accurately, his musical persona – is not easy to warm to at the best of times; I have my doubts this is by intent. However, should you need another facet through which to explore such emotional illiteracy, the lyrics themselves are a good place to start.
“With the sugar sickness you spy the kidnap kid / Who kids you to oblivion / It’s the perfect hassle for the perfumed kiss” (‘Daphne Descends’).
“What if the sun refused to shine? / What if the clouds refused to rain? / What if the wind refused to blow? / What if the seas refused to wave?” (the ill-named ‘Appels and ‘Oranjes’ (sic)).
“Sheila rides on crashing nightingale / Intake eyes leave passing vapour trails” (opening track ‘To Sheila’).
You’ll be seeing the problem here; there’s no subtlety, no depth of meaning, just poetic inflection of the variety scratched into a fifteen year-old’s notebook – subsequently landfill, or fuel for the fire at age sixteen. In which case, perhaps there’s another route through understanding Adore? One in which the exploration of complex thematics is derailed by Corgan not having the toolkit to express himself with any brio. Which also has this as album as failure. Opportunity spurned. And however cheap (and tired) the Fester Addams joke may be, it unfortunately makes a great deal of sense, all things considered.
The Smashing Pumpkins / Pug