June 2nd, 1998, The Smashing Pumpkins released their fourth album “Adore” through Virgin Records. Adore is the Smashing Pumpkins album where Billy and Co. alienated large swathes of the fanbase, embraced drum programming, added more synthesizers, dialled back the riffs and adorned a goth look. All this while still managing to make an album as sprawling, confounding, and intriguing as Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
Left without a drummer after Jimmy Chamberlin’s dismissal, the Smashing Pumpkins took the opportunity to revamp their sound slightly. Billy had already been hinting at new directions even before Jimmy had been jettisoned. After the enormous success of Mellon Collie, the band were on top of the world. But rather than follow that success with a carbon copy, Adore is one of those “left turn” albums, following a major mainstream success. The change in tone was partly by design, partly foisted upon them.
The Smashing Pumpkins have never been the most stable of units, but by June 1997, as they entered the studio to start recording, they were in dire straits. Billy would later characterize the situation as “a band falling apart”. They were coming to terms with the departure of Chamberlin and the fatal heroin overdose of touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin. Corgan was also going through a divorce and the death of his mother. All while recording the album.
So, how do you fill the rather large void left by the departure of Jimmy Chamberlin? Instead of embarking on the monumental task of finding a replacement, the band used three session drummers, and plenty of drum machines. Matt Walker played on seven of the album’s songs. Fellow session ace Joey Waronker drummed on two songs. With Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron playing on the song “For Martha.” The use of a drum machine harked back to the bands earliest incarnation. Before Jimmy Chamberlin joined the band in the late ’80s, they gigged with a digital timekeeper. So the concept of a drum machine was nothing new to the band.
References to the death of Corgan’s mother are present throughout, but the album is rather striking in its calmness. The bombast and thrilling, distorted power of previous albums, is largely missing. At times Billy sounds almost at peace, even amid such personal strife. The atmosphere is at times hushed and haunting, with occasional dalliances toward the more hard rocking side of the bands sound.
In the weeks after Adore’s release, the album was met with lukewarm reviews and sluggish sales. For those who never quite took to Corgan’s personality, the new record became a renewed excuse to berate the band’s primary songwriter. “The lyrics are generally on the wrong side of the line between deeply personal and deeply meaningless,” Douglas Wolk wrote in Spin. In a review for Rolling Stone, Greg Kot, an early champion of the band, suggested that Adore was “a weird little album that turns its back on the band’s previous strengths and shrinks the Pumpkins’ sound.” While Kot was dismissive in his remark, he hit upon the core reason why the record did not replicate the success of Mellon Collie: it did not replicate its sound.
The baggage of “Melon Collie” still hangs over Adore 25 years later. It was always going to be unfairly thought of, simply because it happens to be the follow up to a world conquering behemoth. But taken on its own terms, there’s an awful lot to like about Adore. Corgan blamed himself for the record’s reception with the public, saying he “made the mistake of telling people it was a techno record” and that if he “would have told everyone Adore was the Pumpkins’ acoustic album, we would have never had the problems that we had”.
Billy wrote on the band’s website that the album’s title was “misunderstood” and “a joke that no one ever got”, explaining that Adore was meant as a play on “A Door”, meaning the album would offer a new entrance to the band’s career. In 2005, he would call the making of the album “one of the most painful experiences of my life.”
Only Billy Corgan would consider a 74-minute, 16-track album a modest effort, but compared to its widescreen predecessors, Adore feels more mid-paced and somber, with less of the dynamic peaks and valleys of the searing Siamese Dream or Mellon Collie. Taken individually, each song is as strong as any Pumpkins offering to date, but in sequence the overall tone can leave the listening experience a little flat. No doubt there’s a beautiful, meditative atmosphere to this album. Some might miss the thrilling dynamics that premiated their earlier albums. Gish, Siamese Dream and Melon Collie balanced hard-hitting riffs with meditative ballads and interesting experiments. That formula had been de rigueur for the band, and catnip for the fanbase, up until Adore.
Those who left their expectations and baggage at the door when listening to Adore, are more likely to see the album’s charm, and beauty. Adore is (argubally) still better than pretty much every Pumpkins release that came after. But in 1998, that wasn’t quite enough for many. Adore is a misunderstood album. A side step after an avalanche of success. It’s hard to know how it would have been perceived had it been a stand alone release, out of the shadow of Melon Collie and the drama that surrounded its birth.
Say what you will about Billy Corgan and The Smashing Pumpkins. They are a brave band, they single mindedly follow their muse. They take enormous risks commercially and creatively. Probably more so than any other band of their generation. Adore is a beautiful album. One that feels like the logical conclusion to the ’90s arc of the Pumpkins story, which started in 1991 with Gish, continued with the heady rocket ship blast of Siamese Dream and Melon Collie and ended with the atmospheric drift back to earth with Adore in 1998.