True, Billy Corgan has removed most of the guitars, the pounding, the rat-in-a-cage rage from Smashing Pumpkins’ new album. But don’t worry: he remains stupendously insufferable. Adore begins, ever so quietly, “twilight fades/through blistered avalon/the sky’s cruel torch/on aching autobahn.” It ends with a few piano tinkles–the corresponding words, printed only, to be pondered rather than heard, urge: “17 seconds of compassion/17 seconds of peace/17 seconds to remember love is the energy behind which all is created.” Motherfucking rock star! Hate! Hate! HATE!
Smashing Pumpkins make me feel unclean, as I imagine the Eagles made others squirm before. It’s the same effect. You take the sounds, the rebellious timbre, the loosely clumping musicalities that once bespoke community, and you hone them into this machine, this slightly futuristic vehicle that transports its occupants from the underbrush to the fast lane. Corgan’s fast lane is an autobahn because he worships Kraftwerk like Henley did Gram Parsons, grew out of lowlife-scum culture rather than the counterculture. But so what. The big baldy has insinuated himself with shenanigans that recall nothing so much as Sam Shepard’s The Tooth of Crime, where rock stars function like dueling warlords. Kurt Cobain turns from Butch Vig to Steve Albini so instead it’s Corgan who, with Siamese Dream, records the sonic sequel to Nevermind, then headlines Lollapalooza the summer after Cobain’s suicide, and has of late provided key input on Hole’s forthcoming album. He turns up at Michael Stipe’s intimate birthday party in Athens, Georgia. Interviews Bono for Live! magazine. Steals Marilyn Manson from archrival Trent Reznor. God only knows what he’s scheming up for Radiohead. To receive an advance copy of Adore, I had to sign a legal document pledging not just to keep it from radio and bootleggers–standard practice–but also to refrain from writing about it in publications Corgan is trying to punish for previous japes.
To make sure the Voice won’t suffer next time out, let me kiss Sir Zero of the Round Table’s ass a little. The singles off Siamese Dream and its successor, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, realized a generation’s worth of stifled ambition. Recite it like a catechism: punk’s raw attack led to a massive industry flinch. Thereafter, rock came in the flavors of new wave (produced to sound coy), heavy metal (produced to sound silly), and indie (not produced at all). When those laws were repealed in the early ’90s, Corgan had both the palette–’70s California session musicianship and navel gazing; New Order/Cars pop abstraction; the muscularity of Touch & Go label postpunk–and the inflated ego to take advantage. “Cherub Rock,” “Today,” “Rocket,” “Disarm,” “Tonight, Tonight,” “Zero,” “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “Thirty-Three,” “1979”: these songs have an aural confidence, a sweep. They sold in bulk and turned imperfect experiments like My Bloody Valentine into rock landmarks. They’re Corgan’s castle.
And this is so strange, because the man in the castle (hey, he said his favorite movie is Citizen Kane, not me) barely has a personality at all, so far as we can detect–just a brooding glint that sees whores inside virgins and corrupted flesh in a baby’s bottom. His albums, like his live sets, go on and on, unlistenable in their excess. The Smashing Pumpkins are the most important band in rock–let’s try conceding it. Important how? “Cherub Rock” pretty much said it all: “Freak out and give in/Doesn’t matter what you believe in.” Because it existed only to marvel at itself, Corgan’s grunge always had angelic qualities to it: the guitars dripped luminescence. His voice, that compromise between a reverent hush and a kid’s whine, came off as an invitation to mutual solipsism more than a rallying cry. “God is empty/Just like me.”
But now–wait!–a change cometh upon the land. Grunge topples; self-absorption is out; the powerhouse drummer’s been kicked out of the band. So B. Pumpkin falls back. Electronica he will not attempt–that
would be demeaning. No, with the help of Nitzer Ebb’s Bon Harris he looks to before electronica, before techno even: to the discoid synth-punk of Mute and Wax Trax!–you know, when straight white people hadn’t yet realized that beats were fun. And then he applies himself to lyrics of love. It will be a thorny, obsessive love, cut short perhaps (“see you on the other side”), occasionally indistinguishable from his love of self and his love of his fan’s love of him (“you make me real”; “who am I to you?”). Still: he declares the results “light.” Sure, Billy.
Even so, the first segment of this thoroughly segmented album pulls off the intended remake. Adore begins with the genuinely pretty “To Sheila,” a slo-mo groove of precise percussion and Frogs-sung backing vocals. “Ava Adore,” the debut single, makes its stripped sound and drum loop push the way Pumpkins singles are supposed to push, as Corgan sings an honest love Ballard: “in you I feel so dirty in you I crash cars.” “Perfect” extends the New Order vibe of “1979.”
And then the deluge. Five obsessive songs with tart melodies, repetitive verse structures, mid-tempo speeds, and orchestrations that range from lesser Radiohead to synth-pop period pieces. Corgan is walking the winter tundra of his barren heart, and the scariest part is that we haven’t even gotten to the part where he plumbs its depths. “Pug” briefly restores things, another punching drum-machine rocker with leaping transitions and a constant accretion of detail. And then–the deluge’s deluge, as the album winds down down down. “Let the waste cross the ancient trails to you,” he intones over a bubbling-brook beat in “The Tale of Dusty and Pistol Pete,” followed soon by a song where the “night mare rides on.” Corgan’s called this part “Americana”–I’d say it’s his stab at “Blaze of Glory” and “November Rain” helicopter-cam epicality, only he’s about as convincing a cowboy as Yul Brynner. I’ve heard nothing this year as ridiculous as the part in the 8:17 “For Martha” where what appears to be a recorder solo is built up by drums into a rainbow’s-dawning guitar burst. And I haven’t even mentioned the track where he advises, “take a day plant some trees.” Motherfucking rock star!
For Corgan, I suspect, it’s a punk (or maybe new wave) gesture to revel in humiliating sounds, and when he confronts this–love as “Shame”–he creates, amidst the downer party, the album’s most beautiful song, the first subtle triumph of his marauding career. Guitar pitches distort, the beat swoons–this number is the lurching mirror chamber Corgan means all of the album to be. As for the rest, well, you’ll hear the best of it on the radio soon enough. I’m just waiting for Corgan to release the greatest-hits album that negotiators shuttling between Dayton and Oslo have agreed will get him out of his much bemoaned contract with Virgin one more album down the road. The king is better off pinned up in his castle than riding his night mare cross the blasted countryside.