After a wildly ambitious double album, an arena tour, millions of records sold — after everything that defines all-encompassing rock & roll world conquest — the Smashing Pumpkins reenter our lives not with a bang but with a whimper. ”Twilight fades through blistered avalon,” serenades Billy Corgan, accompanied by fragile acoustic-guitar fingerpicking, on ”To Sheila,” the first track of Adore. It’s hard to imagine a more muted introduction for the official follow-up to 1995’s sprawling Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Even when a distant beat and spectral banjo waft into the song, it still feels like one of those pleasant morsels Corgan or band mate James Iha would have relegated to a Pumpkins B side.
The intimacy and restraint of ”To Sheila” set the tone for the most low-key album the Pumpkins have ever made. Everything, from the tempos to the rhythms to Corgan’s wail, has been taken down a notch. Ballads and mid-tempo songs prevail, many of them exceedingly delicate and pretty, nudged along by ticktocking drum machines and fragile pianos. The album should carry a new style of advisory sticker: ”Warning: Explicitly Lyrical.” Even when the band pumps up the volume — on the first single, ”Ava Adore,” about a love that will tear you apart; the tightly coiled ”Daphne Descends”; or ”Perfect,” whose skipping-stone beat recalls ”1979” — the dramatic flourishes are played down, if no less effective. The careening rockers on Mellon Collie felt as if they could knock down buildings; the ones on Adore want to sneak in through the back door.
None of this means either Corgan or his fellow Pumpkins have mellowed. Corgan barely raises his voice to the angsty caterwaul that makes people either love him or hate him, but his voice and lyrics remain unsettled and unsettling. Pretty on the outside, the album is dark and obsessive beneath; let’s call it passive-aggressive rock. Repeating the line ”you were never meant to belong to me” in ”Crestfallen,” Corgan comes off less like a lovelorn man than a creepy stalker. Other songs touch upon his feelings for his mother (”Once Upon a Time”) and a loved one’s death in a car accident (the terrific gothic bolero ”Tear”). All of them are saved from treacly sentimentality by the harsh, adenoidal sharpness of Corgan’s singing.
Adore is admirable in its consistency. It feels like one extended, mellon-collie ballad, and some of its songs — ”For Martha,” about the recent death of Corgan’s mother, and the surrealistic-animal-farm piano meditation ”Annie-Dog” — are among his most pulchritudinous melodies. Yet that very uniformity works against the record. The unwavering nature of the arrangements leads to some tracks melting into, or canceling out, each other. Also, by depriving themselves of their sonic wallop, the Pumpkins wind up sounding a little ordinary — just another rock band crafting soul-purging, semi-unplugged ballads.
In one regard, that may be the point. Adore could be a reaction to the grandeur of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. If the band continued on that track, after all, they could have wound up as their generation’s Yes, meandering into the ether. But the hushed tone of Adore can also be interpreted as a response to the pitfalls of the rock fame the Pumpkins sought so eagerly. Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain were right: Celebrity and success are a bitch, and all Vedder has to do is quickly scan the battlefield to have his deepest fears confirmed. The alt-rock world, or what’s left of it, is littered with drug casualties (most prominently Scott Weiland) and bands decimated by ego and excess (Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots); Pearl Jam themselves are on their fourth drummer. Once it became a financial boom, Lollapalooza lost its edge and sense of purpose. Even when musicians aimed for and achieved a knockout peak, they seemed shaken by it; after Soundgarden made Superunknown, for instance, they coughed up one more record and then disbanded.
The Pumpkins have not been exempt from these travails: Yes, they pulled off a double CD, and quite magnificently, but they also succumbed to rock-world traps both silly (Iha’s forgettable solo album) and tragic (former drummer Jimmy Chamberlin’s drug addiction and the heroin-related death of their touring keyboardist, Jonathan Melvoin). For all we know, Corgan hasn’t been affected by any of it and is currently lounging about a mansion, being fed grapes by groupies. But the scaled-back, antirock sensibility that permeates Adore reads like an act of self-preservation. It’s the sound of a band pausing, glancing around the landscape, and wondering where they should venture next: a holding action for a time when holding onto reality has never been so urgent. B+