Where to find it: ‘Adore’ (1998, Virgin Records)
Performed by: Smashing Pumpkins
Words by: Billy Corgan
Yes, I know. It’s Thursday. Not Tuesday. But things have been weighing heavily on my mind, we just had Labor Day weekend here, which messed up my usual schedule and yeah…you’re getting a song interpretation today 🙂
Before he went bald and turned into a menacing Uncle Fester and well before he dated Jessica Simpson and tried to turn her into a goth, it’s easy to forget that the same man Billy Corgan wrote some of the best teen angsty songs of the ’90s. Some of them were hard: ‘Bullet with Butterfly Wings’, ‘Today’. Some of them were majestic: ‘1979’, ‘Tonight, Tonight’. Some of them were painfully beautiful: ‘Disarm’. And this one, ‘Perfect’, probably my favourite Smashing Pumpkins song. The album from whence it came, ‘Adore’, showed a shift in Corgan’s songwriting, which was evidenced by the overall less abrasive, quieter quality of the release.
First, the words:
We’re just like old friends
We just can’t pretend
That lovers make amends
We are reasons so unreal
We can’t help but feel
That something has been lost
You know you’re just like me
Next time I promise we’ll be perfect
Strangers down the line
Lovers out of time
So far, I still know who you are
But now I wonder who I was
Verse 2 (truncated)
Angel, you know it’s not the end
We’ll always be good friends
The letters have been sent on
You always were so free
You’ll see, I promise we’ll be perfect
Strangers when we meet
Strangers on the street
Lovers while we sleep
Modified chorus / outro
You know this has to be
We always were so free
We promised that we’d be
Now, the analysis:
This song plays with themes of time, lifetimes, and love and death. Pretty standard pop/rock fodder there. However, I’m detecting an underlying theme of reincarnation as well. I can tell you from first hand knowledge that this is probably about the worst song – besides ‘The End of the World’ – that you can listen to when you’ve realised the relationship you’re in is breaking down and you can’t cope.
The lovers of this song are obviously in tune with each other: “I know / We’re just like old friends”; “You know you’re just like me”. But the voice of the song is trying to tell his lover that this time around, it’s not working out. But what will happen between them on a different plane, in another life? “Next time I promise we’ll be perfect”, they will. He seems so sure of this. The way Corgan slowly sings, “perfect…perfect…”, it’s done in such a whispering, angelic way, I can’t get over it. This is the same man spitting vitriol at us in ‘Bullet with Butterfly Wings’, insisting “the world is a vampire”? Meanwhile, the song itself is driving on with its guitars and drums, rounding out the sound and not letting the mood of the lyrics slow down the song one bit.
I find the bridges very beguiling. In the first one, “Strangers down the line / Lovers out of time / Memories unwind”: after you’ve broken up with someone, you start to feel like they’re strangers because they’ve been unceremoniously cut out of your life. You start to think of them as a lover that was in your life at the wrong time and place, even if the memories can still be fresh in your mind. And quite literally, these lovers in the song are out of time: the relationship is over. “Strangers when we meet / Strangers on the street” has the same kind of sentiment. But “Lovers while we sleep” works very well to me here because when we sleep, our subconscious is alive and remembers those who we loved and those who hurt us. It’s not a far stretch of the imagination to think that while we dream, even if we’ve broken up with someone, that person will still appear as a lover in our dreams.
But the kicker of the song for me are these lines that close the first bridge: “So far, I still know who you are / But now I wonder who I was.” When you’re deep into a relationship, or even just a mild infatuation, you yourself make changes to the way you think, the way you act, the way you react in response to being around this person you love. The problem for most of us is that we bend over backwards to change ourselves so that we can be that perfect person we envision for the one we love, while at the same time putting that person on a pedestal and thinking he/she is perfect and he/she doesn’t have any faults or doesn’t need to change. This is extremely dangerous. No-one’s perfect and if and when that relationship falls apart and you can step back from the wreckage, you will begin to see how messed you really were, changing yourself to be the kind of person you thought the other person wanted. In short, love when it’s not real is destructive. Billy Corgan’s voice comes to accept this.
The last bit, which is a modification of the earlier choruses going into an outro, is pretty harrowing too. “You know this has to be / We always were so free”: our destiny is that we won’t have a happy ending. We weren’t and aren’t meant to be together, at least in this life. I find this is echoed in the chorus of the Crookes‘ ‘Chorus of Fools’: “you and me were fated to be so damn blue”.
What I find extremely emotional is Corgan’s parting blow and how he manages it: “We promised that we’d be / Perfect…” Did you notice what he did there with just a single word change? In the previous iteration of the chorus, he said “*you* always were so free”, not *we*. In the course of the song, he’s gone from thinking that this person he was with was “perfect” and that it was she who was meant to be free of the relationship and free from him. But by the time we reach the end, he has removed himself from this thinking that he was the problem and has come to the conclusion that it’s best that both of them are set free from the ties that bind. And that’s ultimately where you want to end up when a relationship has ended: the true transformation in you is when you realise that something amazing happened to you when you were with that person in love, and while it’s over, you just might see that person again in another life and maybe then you have another chance of giving it a real shot. In that respect, the song comes out not sad, but optimistic.
No pun intended, this song is just about perfect.
Lastly, the song, the song’s promo video, which incidentally was purposely made to connect to the video for ‘1979’, utilising the same directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and four out of five of the actors from the earlier video. I don’t think the video does much for the song at all and kind of marginalises its value.