1990s \

Review: Smashing Pumpkins – Adore

This review was originally published in the July 1998 issue of Spin. On the occasion of our list of best alt-rock songs of 1998, we’re republishing it here.

How could Billy Corgan trump the mammoth Mellon Collie wave the Smashing Pumpkins have been riding for three years? Answer: He couldn’t, especially given the turmoil the band’s gone through (the drug death of keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin, the expulsion of drug-abusing drummer Jimmy Chamberlin). So this time around he’s thinking small. Instead of going for a five-CD exegesis of Western philosophy or something, he’s scaled down the Pumpkins’ conceptual reach and sonic heft. Adore is a late-night album, a headphones album, one designed to be listened to alone rather than in the mosh pit. It demands close attention to the bloom and scent of its mix, so that it doesn’t turn into floral wallpaper.

Without a regular drummer (a machine and several hired humans fill in this time), the Pumpkins have given up being a Rock Band and devoted to being a Pop Project: low-key, sinuous, pretty, trying out bouncy little bass-synth parts. This means that Corgan’s playing down his strong suit—bombast. Overkill is what makes his hits fun, but aside from the shameless lighter-waver “For Martha,” the grand rockist gestures are in short supply on the new album. Warning sign: Months before Adore’s release, the band’s own management was already talking about what a great rock record the next Pumpkins platter would be.

It’s not like Corgan can’t pull off the kind of low-key shuffles he’s attempting here: “1979,” in retrospect, seems like a dry run for Adore. The problem is that the album’s melodies aren’t up to that standard, and without the oomph of a real band behind them, they need to be. (“Annie-Dog” is a particular offender, impenetrable and numbingly repetitive). The omnipresent, obsessively nuanced production details (strings, subtle vocal harmonies, delectable guitar tone) candy everything up, but most of the time there’s not much these arrangements except air. And the lyrics generally on the wrong side of the line between deeply personal and deeply meaningless—though rhyming the album’s title with “you’ll always be my whore” is meaningful in just the wrong way.

Adore seems to be Corgan’s attempt at repurposing the Pumpkins as a new wave band. The nagging tone of his voice and the ticklish plod of “Tear” and “Daphne Descends” suggest he’s been listening to a lot of Cure records, and ending the album with 17 seconds of piano, as in Seventeen Seconds, clinches it. Sometimes that works, especially on “Appels & Oranjes,” with its vintage electroburbles and indelible chorus. Mostly, though, Corgan’s newfound reserve seems like a way of drawing attention away from the fact that an essential part of the band is missing: the swaggering confidence that justified their star trip, and the rock power that backed it up.