Revisiting Smashing Pumpkins' 'Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness'
When I was in the eighth grade, I spent the entirety of my holiday break working on an assignment for my English class. The assignment was open-ended, so I decided to tackle the one thing I had always wanted to do: Write up my top ten albums of the year list, along with my picks for the five worst. (It’s a format that has become pretty familiar.) It was my first — half-hearted, completely blind — attempt to elevate the thing I loved into something that really meant something.
The list itself has been lost to history (it was put together on a Smith-Corona word processor that only possessed enough memory to keep track of the document you were currently working on), but there are a handful of aspects about it I do remember very clearly. It definitely had an introduction that attempted to sum up the musical zeitgeist of 1995, which was mostly a rant against Hootie & the Blowfish, whose music I hated (still do, really).
I know I included Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy on the list even though it came out at the end of 1994, and the write-up for it was mostly an argument for its inclusion, as though anybody cared about the fake rules I had set upon myself and then immediately broke (I think I had to make the same argument for Bush’s Sixteen Stone, though I can’t remember if I included it on the list or just spent time obsessively defending it in other reviews). Collective Soul’s self-titled second album was in the top five, and I also know that Garbage’s self-titled debut was way up there. My really “edgy” pick was Flaming Lips’ Clouds Taste Metallic, which I discovered via the one-two punch of the BMG Music Service and Batman Forever.
The number one spot was controversial. My friend Zack got wind of what I was doing, and he started lobbying hard for me to name Rancid’s …And Out Come The Wolves the top long-player of the year, as though it would have actually had any kind of impact on anybody. Remember, this wasn’t even for a school paper or anything—this was going to be seen by me, my English teacher, and maybe my mom if she was curious enough. In the end, I caved to Zack’s pressure and put Rancid at number one, bumping my initial top choice to the second position. But let’s be real: Though Rancid’s third full-length is great, it pales in comparison to Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the album I fully intended to name number one that year.
It just so happens that Mellon Collie is the latest Pumpkins release to get the reissue treatment (it just came out today, actually), and it’s even more impressive than the previous collections. There are three extra CDs full of demos, outtakes, and remixes, plus a DVD of live performances from the Spring of 1996. The big box also contains all the lyrics, new liner notes on every song from the original album, and a Decoupage kit. All the extras are nice, but what the reissue really does it drive home how incredibly sprawling, bold, ambitious, and audacious Mellon Collie was.
Frontman Billy Corgan had a lot riding on his band’s third proper album, as they were coming off a major breakthrough. Siamese Dream was the rock album of 1993, signifying the Pumpkins’ ascent to radio and MTV dominance on the back of singles like “Today,” “Rocket,” and “Disarm.” Though they were lumped into the catch-all moniker “alternative” (they did headline Lollapalooza, after all), there were only hints of counter-culture in Siamese Dream‘s thick radio-ready production (provided by Nevermind helmer Butch Vig). Really, only frontman Billy Corgan’s unusual voice and occasionally dark worldview put him shoulder to shoulder with his grungier peers on Alternative Nation. Corgan once compared Siamese Dream to the first Boston album, and while there’s still a lot more guttural heft in his work, I always understood that he didn’t think there was that much sonic distance between “Cherub Rock” and “More Than a Feeling.”
Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness has even less to do with the predominant rock poses that had already morphed into cliché by the time 1995 rolled around. It was a strange time, as the highs of ’93 had given way to the sadness of ’94: The death of Kurt Cobain, the beginning of Pearl Jam’s withdrawl from the spotlight, the first wave of wildly successful pretenders like Bush. Radio rock in ’95 was rough, as many of the biggest albums of that fall—including Red Hot Chili Peppers’ One Hot Minute, Green Day’s Insomniac, and Alice in Chains’ Alice in Chains—were grand disappointments, and they had trouble forcing slightly aggro pop stars like Alanis Morissette off the airwaves. A lot of people were going big, but fewer and fewer seemed to be breaking through.
That’s the environment into which Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was born. Any way you look at it, it’s huge: Two discs, 28 songs, massive theatrical production, and grand, sweeping ideas. Corgan is really reaching for the stars depicted on the album’s cover—right from jumpstreet, he opens up his magnum opus with the instrumental title track (a sort of ent’ract for the affair), follows it with the billowing, fantastical “Tonight, Tonight,” and closes the kick-off triptych with a high-speed grinder called “Jellybelly.” It’s a bold gambit, letting the listener know that Mellon Collie would not sit still long enough for anybody to get a proper read on it—at least not in one sitting.
The rest of the albums caterwauled across the rock subgenre spectrum, as Corgan bounds through his warehouse-sized costume shop, trying on New Wave fuzz, classic goth, Bowie glam, ’80s thrash, and a whole bunch of stuff that wouldn’t really find names for another 10 or 15 years. (It’s notable that there are a ton of songs on Mellon Collie that seem to have inspired entire movements and bands—give a listen to “Thirty-Three” and tell me it isn’t the Big Bang for Beach House.)
That level of unpredictability is almost certainly what appealed to my 13-year-old brain. Since I had fully committed myself to rock and roll, there hadn’t been a mainstream album like Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness—one made by an artist acting mostly on the strength of his whims and daring the audience to keep up. I eventually figured out that such a caustic attitude was part of the reason Corgan was such a polarizing figure (and why he had such trouble getting along with his bandmates), but at the time, I was just thrilled by the idea that a rock musician could do so many things over the course of one album.
Though I have drastically shifted my opinions on a lot of what Corgan was up to in the ’90s, I have to say that Mellon Collie really holds up for me. It’s one of the few times that Corgan’s heart-on-sleeve, balls-out approach was fully propped up by the strength of the songs. He’s always been prolific, but the number of absolutely killer hooks on Mellon Collie is awfully impressive. “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” and “1979” are cornerstone smashes, of course, but the strike rate for memorable choruses is remarkably high, even among non-single entries like “Love,” “Galapogos,” “Thru the Eyes of Ruby,” and “To Forgive.” Even when he wanders down the prog rabbit hole, Corgan keeps his songs tethered to something that is recognizable as pop music (though sometimes you do have to squint).
Not all the Smashing Pumpkins’ peak output—from their debut Gish through this release—has aged exceptionally well. In fact, the reissue series has done an exceptionally strange job of recontextualizing all those big riffs and Corgan whines. The relationship between Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie is especially illuminated, as the big-rock bloat on the former makes it more than a little exhausting in retrospect, mostly due to that album’s monochrome approach. Mellon Collie is similarly bursting at the seams, but the genre-hopping helps the pills go down way easier. It’s the rare instance where more was more.
Retrospectively, there are a lot of albums from 1995 that I like better but didn’t hear until later: Radiohead’s The Bends, Bjork’s Post, Elastica’s self-titled debut, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx among them. But Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness still stands out, both in the context of the Smashing Pumpkins’ strange career and the odd times during which it first landed on Planet Rock. And hey, it’s definitely better than Rancid.
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