Musical artists get more and more popular with the public until they have that one new album that is surely going to be another hit — but instead it flops — starting their downward spiral into irrelevance. In this new series, I’ll be discussing that album that nearly every musician has in their catalogue, the ‘fallout album’ and how it holds up years later.
Back in 1995/96, the Smashing Pumpkins could do no wrong. They had released the massive hit album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness in 1995, and even their 1996 five-disc rarities box set The Aeroplane Flies High was an unexpected success, forcing Virgin Records to produce more copies after the initial pressing of 200,000 copies sold out. The result was that the Pumpkins were one of the most popular rock bands in America, even managing to cross over to mainstream radio with their singles ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’ and ‘1979’ (with the latter song coming oh-so-close to breaking into the Billboard Top 10).
Then in July 1996, everything changed. Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and the band’s touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin overdosed on heroin in a hotel room in New York City, resulting in Melvoin’s death. As a result of the incident, Chamberlin was fired from the band and the Pumpkins continued as a trio. In the summer of 1997, they hunkered down in their hometown Chicago to start work on Adore, their fourth album. Almost one year later, on June 2, 1998, Adore was released and quickly became one of the biggest flops in recent pop music history. Mellon Collie had been certified as Diamond, meaning more than 10 million copies had been sold (actually Mellon Collie only sold over 5 million copies but as a double album, it qualified as 10 million).
In contrast, Adore ended up selling just over one million copies. While selling one million copies of an album would be considered a success to most musical artists, this was a gargantuan drop-off in sales for one of the most popular bands in the world. Almost overnight, the Smashing Pumpkins were irrelevant. I can’t remember a moment in rock history when audiences simply stopped caring about an artist as quickly and definitely as they did with the Pumpkins in 1998. So what happened? Is Adore as bad as history would indicate?
This is the point where I’d typically write that I recently sat down and listened to the album to see how it holds up all these years later except that I’ve already been regularly listening to Adore over the past 22 years. I think it’s easily the best album the Smashing Pumpkins ever recorded, as well as being one of my all-time favorite pieces of music. However, it easy to see why the general public didn’t feel the same way about the album.
Between the years 1991-1996, The Smashing Pumpkins made their reputation by releasing three studio albums (along with two stellar compilations of b-sides and rarities) showcasing their unique style of alternative rock: swirling guitars, loud-quiet-loud dynamics, expressive and angsty lyrics and the propulsive drumming of maybe the best percussionist in all of rock and roll. They were very popular with the teenage crowd, and their music typified the sullen, anxiety and rage-filled adolescent of the 90s. Their most recent studio album had been a high-water mark of their output up to that point.
Adore was a complete one-eighty from everything that had come before. The lyrics here are contemplative and sullen, with an abundance of wistful ballads. Some of the songs had very little to no guitars at all. And when those guitars did pop up in the mix, they were acoustic and muted — a huge contrast to what came before. And the dynamic percussion for which the band was renowned was totally absent. In fact, the Pumpkins didn’t even have a drummer anymore. Instead, they filled the gaping hole left by Chamberlin’s absence by employing a variety of session musicians to play the drums. In a majority of the songs, the role was even filled by electronic drum programming.
In essence, the biggest and loudest rock band in the world decided to release an intimate electronica album. An unwritten rule about having success in the popular music business is to find a formula that the public likes, then stick with that formula with minimal variation (but with just enough variation to keep people interested). If not for the presence of Billy Corgan’s distinctive singing voice, most people would be hard-pressed to believe that Adore was performed by the same band that had released Mellon Collie just three years prior. The public wanted Mellon Collie Part 2 and instead, they got something closer to a Leonard Cohen album than to any of the Pumpkins’ previous work.
I remember talking to a co-worker back in 1999. We were telling each other about the bands that we liked and suggesting new music to each other. When I mentioned Adore, his response was “That album is all slow songs. I like the Pumpkins but only like ‘X.Y.U.’ and ‘Bullet’ and stuff like that.” I tried my best to convince him that it was still a great album, just different than their previous music, but I’m pretty sure my efforts were in vain. His response to Adore was more or less the consensus of most of the band’s fans in the 90s.
But Adore is so much more than the failure that history claims it to be. It’s a singular and reflective work, written in the wake of the death of Billy Corgan’s mother to cancer and the end of his marriage. There’s a misconception (mostly among people who have not actually listened to the album) that it is just a bunch of depressing ballads. But look a little deeper and you will see that there is so much hope and faith and promise in this bunch of fifteen songs (well sixteen songs actually but the last track is only a few seconds long and is more atmospheric than anything else).
Just after Mellon Collie’s release, Billy Corgan said in an interview that the album was the ‘end of an era’ for the band. Which makes Adore a new beginning for the Pumpkins and the song ‘Ava Adore’ was selected to be the lead-off single, released a couple of weeks before the rollout of the album. Since MTV still played music back in 1998, the television debut of a brand new Pumpkins video was a Big Deal in the industry. To this day, I think the ‘Ava Adore’ video is one of the all-time greats. Directed by Nick Goffey and Dominic Hawley, the band appears in gothic clothing — Billy Corgan wears a long, black robe with white makeup all over his face, looking more like Nosferatu than an alternative rock star. The video is shot entirely in one take and even more impressively, features Billy lip-syncing the lyrics even though the film keeps slowing down and speeding up again. I can’t imagine the painstaking process that went into making this video, and the inherent difficulties of the shoot almost caused the entire project to be shut down. Fortunately, the crew worked through the problems, resulting in a dark and elegant music video for the ages.
I remember seeing this music video for the first time and being taken aback by the drastic shift in not only the band’s musical style but in their image. The Pumpkins come across as being genuinely creepy. The video is beautiful in its way but it was also dark and unsettling, reminiscent of the best of surrealist art. It was a far cry from the teenage ennui of the ‘1979’ music video and the inspirational fantasy of ‘Tonight, Tonight’. It was the kind of film that is more likely to push away the casual viewer, rather than drawing them in. Coupled with the fact that the music itself was a stylistic departure from their usual output, and it’s easy to see how the Adore era got off to a less than auspicious start.
In September 1998, ‘Perfect’ was released as the second and ultimately final single from the album. The video for this song was more traditional and universally appealing, filmed using the same characters and continuing story from the ‘1979’ video two years prior. The single was moderately successful but the damage had already been done — no further singles were released from Adore, even though ‘Crestfallen’ had been planned as the third single. It was almost as if Virgin Records just gave up on the album, only a few short months after its release. In comparison, Mellon Collie had five singles, issued over the span of a year.
As far as the actual music on Adore is concerned, it’s sublime. The album doesn’t really ever ‘rock out’ but the individual songs are so fantastic, you won’t even notice. Not to mention that dropping a heavy guitar tune like ‘F*ck You (An Ode To No One)’ in the middle of all of this bubbling acoustic electronica would have totally ruined the mood. That being said, some of the songs are a little more lively than others, particularly the singles ‘Ava Adore’ and ‘Perfect’. ‘Appels + Oranjes’ is an upbeat meditation on life and its endless opportunities, and ‘Pug’ surprises with the sudden appearance of a snarling guitar part just after the main chorus. The dramatic ballad ‘Tear’ was written for David Lynch’s 1997 film Lost Highway (before being rejected in favor of another Pumpkins song, ‘Eye’), and it’s an album highlight. Simply put, there are no bad songs on Adore — nothing you would even think about skipping past when revisiting the album. The album ends with three majestic ballads, featuring the epic 8 minute ‘For Martha’, a song Billy wrote in tribute to his mother, who died of cancer in 1996.
The last second before Adore’s release, Billy Corgan decided to pull one song from the tracklist — ‘Let Me Give The World To You’, an upbeat, guitar-driven song co-produced by the legendary Rick Rubin. The tune was initially set to be the final song on the album. Of all the songs on the album, It’s the one that sounds the most like ‘classic’ Pumpkins. When Corgan delivered Adore to Virgin Records, they insisted on making ‘Let Me Give The World To You’ the lead-off single. Corgan didn’t want Adore to be misrepresented by a song that didn’t sound much like the rest of the music on the album. Eventually, he realized that the only way to stop his record company from going against his wishes and releasing it anyway was to drop the song from the album altogether. The track stayed unreleased until it popped up on the 2014 Adore deluxe remastered reissue. It’s a great song and it definitely could have been a hit. I think it would have been an amazing closing song to Adore, providing a bright ray of hope after all of the sullen lyrics and reflective mood. But alas, it wasn’t meant to be. In a way, leaving the song off the album was akin to changing the ending of a film from hopeful to downbeat. As great as the song is, I think that the album is better off with the somber ending it has now.
After the commercial disaster of Adore, the Smashing Pumpkins welcomed a rehabilitated Jimmy Chamberlin back into the band and released Machina/The Machines of God in early 2000. They toured the album and then promptly disbanded after a final show in December 2000. Like every other great band does after playing its ‘final show’, they regrouped in 2005 (with new members replacing James Iha and D’Arcy Wretzky) and continued making albums until this day. But they never regained anywhere near the popularity that they had in the 90s. Currently, the Pumpkins are about to release Cyr, a new album featuring three of the four original members (James Iha is miraculously back in the fold this time around; still no D’Arcy, though).
If you are just a casual fan of the Smashing Pumpkins and haven’t checked out Adore yet, I implore you to give it a listen. It’s the most cohesive album the band has ever done, and personally, I feel it’s their absolute best.