No one will ever accuse Billy Corgan, the Smashing Pumpkins’ lead singer, guitarist, songwriter, keyboard player, arranger, auteur, and probably studio-floor sweeper, of thinking small. In the world of alternative rock, where magnitude of any kind (be it production values or popularity) is viewed warily, Corgan wants the world and wants it now. Five years ago, the Pumpkins signed with an independent label to establish their hipster credibility; once that was accomplished, they quickly leaped to a major. (And they say journalists are cynical.) Siamese Dream, their sleeper 1993 sophomore album, retained the wayward melodies and emotional distance of the genre, but bundled them in fussily produced sonics a world removed from standard grunge.
Naturally, Corgan did not take the task of following up Siamese Dream lightly. By the time he and his three band mates switched off the studio control board after 10 months of work, they had recorded enough material for several albums. And instead of whittling it down, they’ve released it all — a two-CD set spanning more than two hours. (Guns N’ Roses and Bruce Springsteen took the same route, but released their double discs separately.) For extra weightiness, Corgan has saddled it with a groaner of a title that would humble old-school progressive rockers: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (Virgin). The separate discs even have Yes-style subtitles — ”Dawn to Dusk” and ”Twilight to Starlight.” Who would have imagined the anti-pomp world of alterna-rock would someday upchuck something like this?
Mellon Collie, though, is the furthest thing from a compendium of indie-rock cliches. A sprawling sonic carpet that never stops unfurling, its 28 songs careen from ravaged, apocalypse-now metal assaults to glucose-coated ballads. Corgan has stripped away the lacquered sheen of Siamese Dream and replaced it with wild-eyed eclecticism that works, once you get a handle on it. ”Tonight, Tonight” is whipped into a frenzy by hurricane-like strings; the burbling, nine-minute ”Porcelina of the Vast Oceans” conjures up an underwater playground — it’s the closest the Pumpkins have come to becoming Yes. And that’s not to mention the forlorn piano instrumental, the haunted-house romp of ”We Only Come Out at Night,” or the campfire lullaby that brings the album to a gentle close.
Mellon Collie is occasionally belabored, but never fatally so. In a typical example of overthink, ”Cupid De Locke” piles on a shimmery harp, a spoken-word reading, and strings. (Also, no rock song should ever use the words hath and ye.) Their hard rock still sounds a little too fastidious, too marshmallow-gooey, to scare anyone. But the two discs are, at the very least, inordinately diverse and entertaining. The music has such vivid hills and valleys that you never know where it’s going next, and that’s part of the fun of absorbing it.
Of course, the word ”fun” still barely applies to Corgan himself. His lyrics read like entries from post-therapy session journals, concerned more with feelings than narrative. It’s not uncommon to encounter lines like ”My reflection, dirty mirror/There’s no connection to myself.” Corgan continually questions his identity, his capacity for love, and any number of childhood traumas. ”I sensed my loss before I even learned to talk,” he sings in ”To Forgive,” a languid, head-in-the-clouds ballad. ”And I remember my birthdays/Empty party afternoons won’t come back.”
By the album’s tenderhearted final quarter, his emotional exorcism seems to have worked. Corgan ignores his own earlier advice on the album — ”love is suicide” — and reveals himself to be a hopeless, and sometimes hopeful, romantic, serenading his better half with ”You’re beautiful, as beautiful as the sky.” Factor in Corgan’s adenoidal voice, which worms its way out of his nose rather than his throat, and he comes across as a decade younger than his 28 years. He’s the eternal angsty teenager, but with a gadget-heavy basement studio where he sets high school-notebook sentiments like ”Intoxicated with the madness/I’m in love with my sadness” to sonic symphonies.
The hypercreative-loner image is a standard pop archetype, and it now applies to Corgan as much as it once did to visionary oddballs Brian Wilson and Prince. Like those former boy geniuses, Corgan uses pop to create his own hermetically sealed world. (Ironically, Corgan allowed the other three Pumpkins to contribute extensively to this album — as opposed to re-recording their parts himself, as he has done in the past — but the album sounds more than ever like a Corgan solo project.) Radio programmers and industry types can toss around the term ”modern rock” all they want, but in Corgan’s case, it truly applies. The discs incorporate bits of Corgan’s beloved ’70s rock — the sludge-metal of Black Sabbath, the guitar cathedrals of Boston, the Mind Games-period John Lennon. But the effect is never hand-me-down. Corgan’s gauzy wall of sound-incorporating styles from thrash to classical but owing allegiance to none — is very much his own, and very much of this era.
Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is more than just the work of a tortured, finicky pop obsessive. Corgan presents himself as one of the last true believers: someone for whom spewing out this much music results in some sort of high art for the ages. He doesn’t seem concerned with persistent alterna-rock questions of ”selling out,” and good for him: He’s aiming for something bigger and all-conquering. For Corgan, rock is not the caravan of separate covered wagons it’s become in the ’90s. We’re all just one big mass of folk to entertain with an endless variety of sounds and moods, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a member of the club or not. A