I saw the Smashing Pumpkins play in 1996 as they toured in support of their third studio album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. It’s difficult to articulate exactly what I liked about the band’s music at the time beyond that it resonated with my general teenage angst, but I do remember that I jumped around, sang along, and nearly experienced euphoria during the show. I continued to follow the Pumpkins for several more years. I bought their two subsequent records as well as some B-sides and live recordings. My enthusiasm, however, gradually waned. The more time passed, the less likely it seemed that I would ever revisit my favorite bands from the 1990s like the Smashing Pumpkins, let alone their less popular albums like 1998’s Adore and 2000’s Machina/The Machines of God.
I wasn’t the only one who lost interest in the Smashing Pumpkins by the end of the 1990s. Album sales plunged, and the group eventually disbanded. In the years that followed, primary songwriter and frontman Billy Corgan reformed the Pumpkins in several different incarnations and released four more albums under the band’s name. Corgan also performed under different monikers, published a book of poetry, and opened a tea shop and art space in Chicago, while the other original members similarly remained active with new projects. Although the Smashing Pumpkins never left the public eye, they did not accrue many new listeners after the mid-1990s. Instead, most fans retrospectively cite Mellon Collie and its predecessor, 1993’s Siamese Dream, as the band’s cornerstone outputs. When Rolling Stone conducted a readers’ poll of the best Pumpkins songs in 2012, only one of the twenty tracks voted onto the list (“Ava Adore” from Adore) had been released on an album proceeding Mellon Collie. Critics tend to agree with this hierarchization. When Stereogum writer and 33 1/3 author Ryan Laes ranked the Pumpkins’ ten best songs in 2018, only one (again “Ava Adore”) was not from the mid-1990s. “There’s a lot to love about Corgan’s work after his peak years,” Laes conceded, “but nothing matches the weight and impact of what he did when he was young and furious.” Others were more forthcoming. New York Times music critic Joe Coscarelli suggested that Corgan “has never again sniffed the creative or commercial success of the band’s heyday.” By all estimations, that heyday ended with the release of Adore.
It was never going to be easy to follow up Mellon Collie, a double album that sold ten million copies, but the Pumpkins also faced additional setbacks. They had fired their powerhouse percussionist Jimmy Chamberlin on the grounds of his drug addiction after the band’s touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin fatally overdosed in 1996. Corgan, often described as having an abrasive personality, continued to engage in tabloid-grade spats with other celebrities. And as the band wrote and recorded its follow-up to Mellon Collie, it experimented with sound instead of reproducing the template that had propelled it to fame.
For those who never quite took to Corgan’s personality, the new record became a renewed excuse to berate the band’s primary songwriter.
In interviews from the early 1990s and onward, Corgan repeatedly articulated that he felt as if he was “publicly committing suicide” with every new record. That is to say that he experienced writing and recording as a process of reinvention. But his choice of metaphor also hinted at his exasperation with fans, critics, and fellow musicians who complained that each new Pumpkins album sounded different than the last — and that that was a bad thing. When Siamese Dream was released, for instance, it elicited snide comments from indie circles. Stephen Malkmus of Pavement, Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü, and producer Steve Albini (who also played in Shellac at the time) separately criticized the record and claimed that it made musical compromises in the interest of commercial success. The Smashing Pumpkins had “sold out,” these naysayers implied, because Siamese Dream had sold four million copies, which was a lot more than the band’s 1991 debut Gish. That album had moved only 100,000 copies in its first year, but it had been an underground hit and peaked at number one on the College Music Journal radio charts. With Mellon Collie, the band was similarly taken to task for changing too much or, alternatively, not changing enough. In a review for Spin, the critic Ann Powers wrote that the record was “not quite the masterwork it [was] meant to be,” while Jim Derogatis declared that it was a reflection of Corgan’s “lyrical rut.” When Adore was released in 1998, three years after Mellon Collie, it earned the band a stronger backlash than ever.
Adore is dark and brooding, and it is often described as the Pumpkins’ “goth” album. Songs like “Shame,” “Crestfallen,” and “Blank Page” make it the truly melancholy entry in the group’s discography. Although Corgan and guitarist James Iha had previously expressed interest in moving away from the drums-and-guitars rock formula and toyed with an electronic foundation on tracks like “1979” and “We Only Come Out at Night,” the loss of Chamberlin cornered the band into using a drum machine on Adore. As a result, the overall sound is less punchy and monumental at the same time as it is more mechanical and stripped down. Some songs are nearly acoustic. But the band’s musical pivot away from Mellon Collie was also intentional. During the Adore sessions, the Pumpkins recorded songs like “Let Me Give the World to You” that were flagged as obvious singles, but Corgan pulled them at the last moment and left the new record devoid of the sound the group had come to be known for. 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.
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Most bands, if they are lucky, have several well-received and well-respected albums. For the Pumpkins, those were Siamese Dream, Mellon Collie, and, to a lesser extent, Gish. In part, this success is attributable to the fact that they were most prolific in the mid-1990s. In 1994, just a year after the release of Siamese Dream, the Pumpkins put out the fourteen-track compilation of B-sides and outtakes Pisces Iscariot. Mellon Collie followed in 1995 with another twenty-eight songs. The Aeroplane Flies High, a six-disc compilation box set with thirty-three tracks, came out a year later. Additionally, the band contributed to movie soundtracks, released live recordings, and made award-winning music videos. Another reason that Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie have remained the band’s most prominent outputs is that these albums — ironically, unlike 2007’s Zeitgeist — captured the zeitgeist. Like grunge half a decade earlier, the Pumpkins’ music in the mid-1990s resonated with a general sense of societal dissatisfaction and a feeling of entrapment in American capitalism. It also had a whimsical dimension that reflected the simultaneous excitement and anxiety GenX listeners felt toward technology. In the “Tonight, Tonight” video, the Pumpkins invited fans to imagine a pseudo-world full of new possibilities akin to the time of early industrialization. Others, like “Today” and “1979,” romanticized the innocence of the post-war period and enveloped it in nostalgia. Several years before the Y2K panic in which a minor computer glitch was feared to precipitate a global meltdown, the Pumpkins articulated the skepticism and hope a generation of listeners felt toward the changing world around them.
Some twenty years after Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie, the Smashing Pumpkins have been firmly historicized into the 1990s. They are sometimes grouped as part of the grunge movement, sometimes as “grunge-adjacent,” and sometimes as alternative rock. Corgan pushed back against these comparisons in the 1990s, and he continued to resist the periodization well after. As he wrote, recorded, and toured in support of new material, he also consistently voiced resentment of audiences who clamored for renditions of 1990s songs. “Fans think you’re there to be a jukebox,” he complained in a 2012 interview. “When you’re older … you’re supposed to become the museum version of yourself.” Corgan expected fans to request the hits at shows, but he was increasingly frustrated that they demanded nothing but the Pumpkins’ mid-1990s hits. For a musician who never stopped evolving, Corgan felt pigeonholed into a single sound from his own past. Surprisingly — or perhaps mockingly — only months after he released a piano-based album as William Patrick Corgan, he also announced that the original Smashing Pumpkins minus bassist D’Arcy Wretzky had reunited and planned a tour on which they would only play songs from the first few albums rather than new material recorded for a forthcoming release. The 2018 “Shiny and Oh So Bright” tour can be read as either a concession or a blatant attempt to recapture the band’s narrative and take part in shaping its legacy. If fans and critics were well on their way to codifying the band’s music, Corgan may have reasoned, then the reunion tour was a way to reintegrate his voice into the conversation.
Their discography is vast enough to capture what it felt like to be a teenager in the 1990s, and it was equally accommodating to capture what it feels like to be an adult in the 2010s.
All the attention given to the Pumpkins’ mid-1990s music means that their less popular albums have become underrated B-sides of their discography for many listeners. I have few recollections of how I experienced Adore and Machina when they were released, likely because I found them lackluster at the time. When I recently revisited these records, I recognized the songs, but I couldn’t associate them with a moment or a memory, I couldn’t visualize any videos, and I initially had a hard time telling the albums apart. As I continued to listen, however, I began to hear the evolution in the Pumpkins’ sound. This is what makes it exciting to rediscover the band nearly twenty years after its peak commercial popularity. Adore, in particular, resonates. As I listened to it in the late 2010s, it didn’t evoke the late 1990s like Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie do. Neither did it bring back the feeling of being a teenager. Instead, I experienced Adore anew. I listened to it on a long and unexpected weather-related layover in Chicago when I was travelling to a job interview. The lonely piano chords on “Blank Page” and Corgan’s chilling vocals on “Tear” haunted me as I played them on a loop. The album tapped into the hopelessness I felt in the face of a winter storm, and it matched my despair at the prospect of seemingly endless limbo in an airport terminal. I eventually arrived, but I forfeited all ambitions of getting the job since the delay had caused me to miss an entire day of planned presentations and meetings. In the week after, I continued to listen to Adore as I moped around and contemplated my bad luck. It sounded as resigned as I felt. It also sounded as present as my predicament.
I started listening to Machina a few weeks after that — around the time I heard that I had gotten the job after all. The record could match my celebratory mood because, like Adore, it was not loaded with old emotions and memories. It was then that I began to hear the Smashing Pumpkins for the band they had always been: flexible and dynamic. Their discography is vast enough to capture what it felt like to be a teenager in the 1990s, and it was equally accommodating to capture what it feels like to be an adult in the 2010s. Although the Pumpkins certainly did not plan to scale back their commercial success, their declining popularity in the late 1990s disassociated their later albums like Adore from that era. Revisiting them two decades later allows us to engage with these records on their own terms as music that has not so much aged as much as it has matured.
Jovana Babovic is an Assistant Professor of modern European history at SUNY Geneseo, with an interest in urban life and popular culture in Eastern Europe during the twentieth century. She is the author of Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out, part of the 33 1/3 series, and Metropolitan Belgrade: Class and Culture in Interwar Yugoslavia.
Excerpted from The 33 1/3 B-Sides: New Essays by 33 1/3 Authors on Beloved and Underrated Albums, edited by Will Stockton and D. Gilson. Copyright © 2019 by Jovana Babovic. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury and Jovana Babovic.
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