After a wildly ambitious double album and an arena tour, the Smashing Pumpkins return not with a bang but with a whimper. ?To Sheila,? the first track on “Adore”, is an acoustic lullaby that feels like a tossed-off B-side. It?s hard to imagine a more muted introduction to the follow-up to 1995?s “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.”
The intimacy and restraint of ?To Sheila? set the tone for the Pumpkins? most low-key album. Everything, from the tempos to the rhythms to Billy Corgan?s voice, has been taken down a notch. Ballads prevail, nudged along by tick-tocking drum machines and fragile pianos. Even when the band pumps up the volume — on the first single, ?Ava Adore,? about a love that will tear you apart — the dramatic flourishes are subdued.
None of this means Corgan has mellowed. He barely raises his voice to his angsty caterwaul, but his tone and lyrics remain unsettled and unsettling. Pretty on the outside, the album is dark and obsessive beneath. It comes across like one long, mellon-collie ballad, and some of its songs — the surrealistic-animal-farm piano meditation ?Annie-Dog? and ?For Martha,? about his mother?s death — are among Corgan?s most pulchritudinous melodies.
That very uniformity can work against the record. By depriving themselves of their sonic wallop, the Pumpkins wind up sounding ordinary — just another rock band crafting soul-purging, semi-unplugged ballads.
That may be the point. “Adore” could be a reaction to the grandeur of “Mellon Collie.” But it could also be interpreted as a response to the pitfalls of the fame the Pumpkins sought so eagerly. The alt-rock world, or what?s left of it, is littered with drug casualties (Scott Weiland) and bands decimated by ego and excess (Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots). The Pumpkins themselves haven?t been exempt from these travails, both silly (James Iha?s solo album) and tragic (ex-drummer Jimmy Chamberlin?s drug addiction). In that context, “Adore”?s scaled-back sensibility reads like an act of self-preservation: a holding action for a time when holding onto reality has never been so urgent.