By Spencer. “Everything ends badly. Or else it wouldn’t end.” — Tom Cruise, Cocktail.
By 1998, the Smashing Pumpkins were already falling apart. Their drummer, Jimmy Chamberlain — whose frenetic style had been a long-underrated X-factor in the band’s success — was gone. The famously frosty relationship between Billy Corgan and his bandmates, James Iha and D’Arcy Wretzky, was only getting worse. And for the first time in their musical career, they seemed spent. With every release bigger than the last, a bubble had been created, and bubbles always burst. It’s a tribute to the Smashing Pumpkins that, in such a time of turmoil, they created their most intimate, their most personal, and their most mature album.
Adore is still an aberration in the Smashing Pumpkins’ two-decade career. It sounds like no other album in their catalog — quiet instead of loud, calm instead of aggressive, measured instead of schizophrenic. The songs follow a single sonic thread, a common mood, and that mood is darkness. And yet the album as a whole isn’t gloomy; sure, there are moments where it is, but there are also moments of prideful peace and self-assurance, a sense of acceptance that had always been missing in Billy Corgan’s music until now. This was a man who always seemed to feel like he needed to prove something to the world; Adore is the sound of him realizing that he had already done that.
How else do you explain an opener like “To Sheila” — maybe the prettiest song the Pumpkins ever recorded? It opens with a quiet hum and the faintest echoes of chirping crickets — so appropriate for an album that feels like the nighttime — and then a finger-picked guitar, toned almost like a harp, and a quiet vocal harmony: “You make me real / You make me real / Strong as I feel / You make me real.” Never known for embracing the vocabulary of simplicity, it’s such a pleasingly uncomplicated sentiment from Corgan — an acknowledgment that you can say more with less. And the banjo solo that steps through midway is like a fresh breeze, blowing away all the negativity and bombast of the previous few years.
Smashing Pumpkins – “To Sheila”
From there, the album picks up the energy with electronic tracks like “Ava Adore,” “Perfect,” and “Daphne Descends.” These were the years when the whole music world was flirting with electronica, and having to rely upon programmed drums rather than the real thing, the Smashing Pumpkins jumped shamelessly on the bandwagon. But whereas bands like Bush and No Doubt were fusing cheap techno beats over the same old music they’d been doing all along, the Pumpkins at least used it as an occasion to immerse themselves in completely new sounds and songwriting styles. They weren’t looking to emulate the Chemical Brothers or Underworld or Fatboy Slim; they were looking back further, to the murkier 80s new wave sounds of Depeche Mode, Joy Division, New Order, and the Thompson Twins. Like synthpop with a 90s angst, these songs pulse with keyboards and pounding bass beats. But the emphasis on melody rather than rhythm keeps it from sounding like the rest of the late-90s electronica fad.
Smashing Pumpkins – “Daphne Descends”
In its second half, Adore turns inward, becoming more contemplative and more subdued. “Behold! The Night Mare” is a better moment than its name would suggest, and is followed by “Shame,” a brooding lullaby with an edge, and “For Martha,” a long piano epic dedicated to Corgan’s recently-passed mother. The mood is dark but peaceful, like a moment very late in the night when, exhausted but resigned to reality, you realize that you’re actually pretty okay with who you are. That’s what makes Adore such a satisfying album, and the Pumpkins’ last great work — the sense that, after so much ego and so much ambition to be the best (read: biggest) rock band in the world, they finally found resolution. And ironically, it was in their smallest moment.
From there, the long, slow decline began. In music no less than in sports, it’s always difficult as a fan to talk about those times after your heroes pass their primes. Machina: The Machines Of God was the first indication to me that there would never be another Siamese Dream or Mellon Collie; from here on out, my relationship with my favorite band would be one of memories, not one of anticipation. Earlier Pumpkins albums had the occasional filler track, but for the most part, they were listenable from start to finish. Machina reversed that balance. Fueled by the return of Jimmy Chamberlain, The Everlasting Gaze is a ripping piece of speed metal, and a few other tracks (“Stand Inside Your Love,” “I Of The Mourning,” “Heavy Metal Machine“) have some nice chord changes. But they feel like recycled versions of earlier, better songs. At this point, the Pumpkins’ long-latent obsession with The Cure — always there but usually relegated to the backseat — was now driving the car. It made for tired, predictable music.
Smashing Pumpkins – “I Of The Mourning”
The replacement of D’Arcy Wretzky with Hole’s Melissa Auf Der Maur, while not noticeable in a sonic sense, seemed to wrench away a vital part of the band’s soul. Wretzky’s background vocals had always been a crucial component, married so perfectly with Corgan’s quasi-feminine voice. And I suspect her personality also shaped the band and its songwriting in subtle ways that just couldn’t be replaced. Band members were now coming and going between releases, leaving Billy Corgan as the only constant — a fact that did nothing positive for his ego and his dictatorial ways in the studio. As the band became Corgan and the musicians around him became hired guns, any hope of reigning in his excesses was now gone.
I last saw the Pumpkins live during this time, and it was a surprisingly gushing experience. The band seemed to be having fun. They seemed genuinely touched by the fan response. Afterwards, they stuck around high-fiving us from the stage, and you thought, maybe they’re working a few things out and will be back, better than ever? Two weeks later, they announced their breakup. It wasn’t optimism for the future that was fueling their night; it was the knowledge that it would soon all be over, like those last few good times you might have with an ex before the divorce you both know is coming.
A few months later, the Smashing Pumpkins released Machina II: The Friends & Enemies Of Modern Music via the internet (a novel concept in these days), but it wasn’t a proper release — just demos and leftover material from the Machina sessions, poorly recorded and unmastered. A greatest hits album followed that contained an intriguing new track called “Untitled,” a moment of Siamese Dream-style guitar euphoria that seemed to say, “yeah, we easily could’ve kept doing this all along if we’d really wanted — just so that none of you forget that.”
And then it was over. No more Smashing Pumpkins — at least not for another half a decade or so. With Chamberlain in tow, Corgan formed a new band, Zwan, which was actually fairly decent but recorded only one album. He also did a solo album, TheFutureEmbrace, that was pretty much unlistenable. Iha released his own solo album and has since done session work with A Perfect Circle, Whiskeytown, and Fountains Of Wayne. Wretzky has stayed out of the limelight. Neither has played with Corgan again, and given the bad blood, it seems doubtful they ever will.
In 2005, Corgan resurrected the Smashing Pumpkins name for a new album, entitled Zeitgeist. Chamberlain returned as his drummer, but none of the other former Pumpkins would participate. The album has its detractors, but I actually enjoyed the hell out of it. It’s an angry, lumbering helping of Corgan-style metal, and in a time when indie rock was steeped in affected mellowness, it was a much-needed kick in the balls.
Smashing Pumpkins – “Doomsday Clock”
But Zeitgeist was the last sputtering of a dying giant, it turned out. Chamberlain left shortly thereafter, and Corgan filled out the rest of the band with cheap knockoffs of their former members — a girl bass player, an Asian guitarist — as if to suggest that the Smashing Pumpkins could be maintained with interchangeable parts.
He indulged in online vanity projects like Teargarden By Kaleidoscope, a 44-track concept album that Corgan announced he would release for free online, a track at a time. The material was a return to the band’s earlier psychedelia, but it was undeveloped and thin-sounding. In 2011, the band released a conventional album, Oceania, that Corgan explained was an “album within an album” as part of the broader Teargarden project. That was of course bullshit, because Corgan has never really returned to Teargarden, despite the occasional insistence that he will do so. He just won’t admit, to himself as much as anyone else, that it’s over.
The Smashing Pumpkins are currently recording a pair of new albums for release in 2015: Monuments To An Elegy and Day For Night. As much as I’d like to believe these will contain some moments worthy of the band I loved as a teenager, I know it won’t be so. Part of adulthood is recognizing when to let go. And creativity on the level that the Smashing Pumpkins engaged in between 1991 and 1998 just can’t be sustained forever. Music is fueled by passion, and passion is fueled by youth and hunger — and Billy Corgan has neither of these things anymore. Everything ends badly. Or else it wouldn’t end.
But music is also about capturing a moment in time and preserving it. And in the Smashing Pumpkins’ recordings, a piece of me was preserved as well. When I listen to them, I hear myself — my loves, my regrets, my ambitions, my scars, my best days and my worst. I hear my youth.
It’s all still there. It always will be. Whenever I press play.