Unhappiness has been very good to Billy Corgan.
When he first started to plumb the depths of adolescent despair with his band, the Smashing Pumpkins, his whining voice and roaring guitar struck a chord with alternarockers around the globe.
Corgan clearly understood what it was like to be young, gifted and miserable, and expressed his disaffection quite vividly, beginning with the Pumpkins' 1991 EP, "Gish."
Several platinum albums later, Corgan is no longer interested in the slash-and-yearn sound that put the Pumpkins on the map. After a string of alternahits that translated teen angst into mini-epics, Corgan has apparently sworn off grand gestures.
There are no raging guitars or ragged, punk-inflected riffs on the Pumpkins' latest release, "Adore" (Virgin 45879, arriving in stores today); instead, what we get are low-key acoustic guitars and wispy, soft-textured electronics.
Where once his adenoidal voice scraped against the microphone in torment, now he croons in gentle harmony. Moreover, much of the music he and the Pumpkins are making is mellow and contemplative, emphasizing melodic flow over musical mayhem.
But look at the bright side -- at least he's unhappy.
In fact, there are moments when "Adore" positively drips misery, from the doubt and despair of "Tear" (sample lyric: "Where has your heart gone to?/Tear me apart") to the despair and doubt of "Once Upon a Time" ("Time has ravaged on my soul/To wipe a mother's tears grown cold").
The music, too, is often extravagantly downbeat, relying so heavily on minor key melodies you'd think Corgan had forgotten how to write (much less whistle) a happy tune.
Given the album's blend of low-key music and lyrical despondency, it's as if Corgan decided to take Thoreau at his word, and assumed that the mass of men really do lead lives of quiet desperation. After all, even the album's love songs seem seamy, with "Daphne Descends" using a mournful mellotron to make the heroine's romantic devotion seem like pathetic obsession, while the clanking synths and sneering vocals of "Ava Adore" make its "We must never be apart" chorus seem almost like a threat.
So what's to like about "Adore"? Well, Corgan's melodic sense is more dependable than ever, with six of the album's 16 qualifying as downright catchy (an improvement over his usual three- good-hooks-per-album quota), while his ability to recycle the sounds of the '80s is sharper than ever. In addition to giving us another Cure tribute in "Perfect," he does a devastating Gary Numan impression on "Pug."
Still, those are fairly minor pleasures, and not likely to impress anyone not already sold on the Pumpkins' particular brand of angst rock. But then, how much pleasure should we expect from a band that specializes in misery?
Sound of Smashing
To hear excerpts from the Smashing Pumpkins' new release, "Adore," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6119. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.
The Smashing Pumpkins
Adore (Virgin) ** 1/2
Pub Date: 6/02/98