Like Don Quixote and his windmill, the leading lights of alternative rock defined themselves by what they were fighting. To varying degrees and with distinct stylistic differences, Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, Trent Reznor, and Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan battled the jocks who beat them up in high school (that is, the very same people who grew up to populate their mosh pits). But the other guys also more or less opposed the music business-as-usual; they jutted their middle fingers out from album sleeves, fought TicketMaster monopolies, created gross-out videos that were more like dares than entertainment. But Corgan enthusiastically embraced the life: He always wanted to be a Rock Star--bigger than Tom Scholz, Rick Nielsen, every single hero whose poster he once hung on his bedroom wall--and he's never been more successful than on the brand-new Adore, due in stores June 2.
Our boy Bill, a former Chicago sceneboy who made the rounds before he made the rock, has always been a notorious egotist and perfectionist; there are certain drummers who might also add "son of a bitch." (Joey Waronker quit Beck's band to join the Pumpkins at double his salary, then bailed after two weeks. Kenny Aronoff, a longtime studio pro formerly with John Mellencamp, now has the gig.) Sure, you had to give him credit in the studio for crafting amazingly ornate walls of sound, but anyone with half a brain also had to be disappointed with what he did with them. On Gish, Siamese Dream, and Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness, those mighty musical constructions--better than Journey! Styx! Queen!--were employed by the man to vent his raging angst and revel in his terminal miserableness. You know, that whole sorry rat-in-a-cage trip.
Either the music on Adore is strong enough to outweigh the lyrics (sample: "You remind me of that leak in my soul") and typically whiny singing, or those lyrics and that singing have simply gotten better. It's probably a little of both, plus the fact that for all his talk about the ambition of previous efforts, Billy's never really put it on the line like he does here.
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For starters, he succeeds where David Bowie, U2, and Madonna have failed, successfully merging rock and techno for the pop-rock mainstream, the way Blondie blended rock and disco on "Heart of Glass." Songs such as "Ava Adore," "Daphne Descends," and "Tear" incorporate electronic dance grooves and washes of ambient synthesizer without sacrificing rock's essential visceral kick, and they do it without a hint of grunge. Corgan and bassist James Iha (himself the creator of an ambitious, dreary, come-and-gone solo record, released and forgotten earlier this year) have dramatically expanded their six-string pallets, delivering some of the coolest tubular-buzz E-bow leads since "Heroes" (the Bowie-Eno-Fripp version, not the Wallflowers').
That's half the album. In typically schizophrenic style, Corgan devotes the other half to tender acoustic ballads that expand on his earlier cover of "Landslide." There are some genuinely beautiful moments in "To Sheila," "The Tale of Dusty and Pistol Pete," and "Annie-Dog." The last is particularly effective, because the lilting, piano-driven melody contrasts with lyrics that seem to portray Corgan's pal and former lover, that whirling dervish Courtney Love. ("Amphetamine Annie-Dog has a leash and a face...She is Venus, she is Mars/She's electric.")
Then there's "Behold! The Nightmare," which somehow combines both of the album's divergent approaches and a better imitation Pet Sounds vocal break than any of those indie-rockers, such as the High Llamas or the Pernice Brothers, can muster. Best of all is "For Martha," a moving tribute to Corgan's recently deceased mom. Naturally, he pulls out all the stops on this one, coming up with an elaborate mini-symphony the likes of which haven't been heard since Genesis on Selling England by the Pound. "I will follow you and see you on the other side," he croons, then builds to a thunderous climax with an elegiac, way over-the-top guitar solo. Oh, mama! Even if you're a cynical, pierced, and tattooed alternateen, you won't have a dry eye after this one.
Is any of this really as revolutionary, oh-boy!, brand-spanking-new as the forthcoming wave of Pumpkins adoration says it is? Hell, no, but it's certainly the best music these dimwits have produced. And now that alternative rock is officially dead and buried--one could trace this to the ascendancy of Bush, but the history books will no doubt mark it by the dismantling of Lollapalooza--it leaves Corgan as the last American Rock Star of his generation. That oughta count for something, no?