Review Summary: The Smashing Pumpkins third album is by far their most ambitious effort, with some truly brilliant songs. Unfortuneately, some filler drags it down, but overall a great album.
Billy Corgan’s bald head must have been on the brink of exploding in the mid nineties. With all the torment the lead singer of 90’s pseudo-grunge/alt rock band The Smashing Pumpkins goes through with every album, creating his double album opus "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" must have been hell. First off, it was following the superb "Siamese Dream", the album that shot The Smashing Pumpkins into mainstream consciousness. That album nearly killed Corgan, so when the Smashing Pumpkins reconvened in 1995 to record their next effort, the boys and girl decided to try and finish him off for good and make "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" a double album with 28 songs and over an hour and a half's worth of material.
Putting out double albums nowadays seems like a victory lap for bands who have reached the pinnacle of their success. The Red Hot Chili Peppers certainly weren't going to fail no matter how bad their double album might have been, and double/triple albums of rarities and new material pop up everywhere from Nirvana to Tom Waits. For the Pumpkins, "Mellon Collie" was no victory lap. They were following up a wildly successful noise-rock album, but they had no set reputation as rock gods who could do no wrong as other double album artists had. Needless to say, the ambitious drive behind this album is massive. It's also incredibly evident, screaming it's place in the first seven minutes of the album, with a piano instrumental followed by the ethereal "Tonight, Tonight". Immediately, Corgan sets himself apart from his distortion-mongering peers with an alt rock ballad single that is rock enough for the scene kids yet has enough pop sensibility to propel the band into the forefront of MTV's video playlist (remember that"). "Tonight, Tonight" sets the tone for the album, with it's driving synth-strings hooks and Corgan sounding like a delicate child as he croons "Time is never time at all. You can never ever leave without leaving a piece of youth."
Corgan's eccentricities bleed through here, as his song-writing compels him to include anything that will make the track bigger, more gut-wrenching, and more chaotic. Drummer Jimmy Chamberlain's pulsing drum rolls push the song nearly beyond it's breaking point at 3:30, but it concludes with a gentle guitar fadeout. It's a perfect announcement of how the Pumpkins have followed up the unbeatable "Siamese Dream" with something unpredictable and wild. And that's exactly how "Mellon Collie" flows.
"Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" moves with quickness and aggression, but stops suddenly and often for a softer track or a noisy ballad. The Pumpkins work both ends of the alt rock spectrum, influenced by the fuzz of Jane's Addiction and Sonic Youth in addition to the gliding sounds of The Cure. Neither style is consistently terrific on "Mellon Collie", but both are blended enough to form the unique sound the Pumpkins maintain. The first disc of "Mellon Collie", "Dawn to Dusk" sticks largely to the former, working much like "Siamese Dream". The louder tracks kick in right after "Tonight, Tonight" and don't let up for 9 songs. "Jellybelly" hits hardest as Chamberlain solos with triplets and cymbal rushes under a riff similar to the Chili Peppers' "Me and My Friends". "Jellybelly" sets the bar that is to be jumped later by crazier/louder songs by the Pumpkins, but the initial riff is enough to let the "Siamese Dream" fans know the Pumpkins haven't given up their hard rock formula cold turkey. Songs such as "Ode to No One" pulsate while staying within the realm of hard rock, while songs like "Porcelina of the Vast Oceans" bust into loud riffs, then drop out for guitar driven verses.
The Pumpkin's catchier side resides mostly on the first disc as well. "Zero" is a monster track with one hell of a foot-stomping riff, complete with ear catching pauses where Corgan screams "Wanna Go For A Ride"" and "God is empty just like me". Corgan's one-liners are absolutely anthemic, especially when the band stops on a dime for Corgan to shriek it out. "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" starts with a sly "The world is a vampire set to drain
", and the chorus explodes with Corgan sneering "In spite of my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage"
. Corgan knows how to connect with his audience, whether he knows it or not. His lyrics convey the anger and frustration of kids in mid-nineties America. For example, "Muzzle"'s opening lyric, "I fear that I'm ordinary, just like everyone, to lie here and die among the sorrows,"
is just lonely enough for outcast teenagers of the world to understand and share in. Corgan's always been an emotional songwriter, but on "Mellon Collie", his lyrics are more introverted and expressive then on previous efforts, especially on the second disc.
The second disc of "Mellon Collie" is entitled "Twilight to Starlight", and it has the emotion to match. It's far more varied-and as a result, inconsistent- than "Dawn to Dusk". It makes sense as the time between twilight and starlight is nighttime, and night can cause feelings of either peaceful relaxation or extreme insanity. The crazy is crazier here, with barnburner "Tales of a Scorched Earth" and the schizophrenic "X.Y.U" completely demolishing themselves before they even build themselves up. Corgan's vocals sound as though they have been placed through a meat grinder on these tracks, with the distortion nearly destroying any thread of melody. They're a rare glimpse of just how far out there the Pumpkins are willing to go, but most of "Twilight to Starlight" is slower and more relaxed. Most of the second disc and the end of the first disc run together with their feel. The slower songs concluding "Dawn to Dusk" are at times beautiful. "Galapagos" runs like a more forlorn "Tuesday Afternoon" by the Moody Blues. The synth strings come in to stir emotion as Corgan sighs "I won't deny the pain, I won't deny the change. But if I fall from grace here with you, will you leave me too""
. It's simple but satisfying, as the Pumpkins are when at their best. The best "Twilight to Starlight" ballads are just as or more beautiful, peaking at the dreamlike "1979", in which Corgan recollects his past with biting irony. His "Shakedown 1979, cool kids never have the time"
is classic, as his chorus of "I don't even care to shake these zipper blues"
is beautiful, particularly with the distorted violins backing him up. The Pumpkins try to recreate this feeling each time they pull back, but unfortunately obstacles come up.
Much of "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" is very good, some parts excellently crafted, both loud and soft alike, but the issue with it is the issue with most double albums: consistency. The Smashing Pumpkins have trouble spreading the wealth through two albums, and many tracks could have been thrown away without a second thought given to them. Tracks like "Love" and the oddly folk tinged "We Only Come Out at Night" are not necessary to make the album any better, merely to make them longer it seems. "Love" goes nowhere musically, and it's seemingly senseless lyrics do nothing, as Corgan's chorus of "Love, Love. It's Who You Know"
is annoying if anything. Frankly, the song is just boring. The Pumpkins fall into this trap a few times during the album's duration, such as the forgettable "Bodies", where Corgan shrieks "No Bodies!" over standard distortion chords. Sitting down and listening to all of "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" is a monstrous task because of the filler and less interesting tracks scattered throughout both disks. You can sense that the Pumpkins really wanted to make an epic piece, and they nearly succeeded, but they stretched their butter too thin, and some of "Mellon Collie" falls short of what would make the cut of a single album.
This isn't a massive deal when taking the album in sections. The musical talent on "Mellon Collie" is top notch for alt-rock. James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlain are virtuosos at destruction (guitar and drums respectively), but can pull it back for the slower tracks. Their work on songs like "Beautiful" is restrained and yet still held well. Iha's work is notably excellent on tracks like "Where Boys Fear To Trend", where he works a riff sitting on notes in minors and flats to make another foot-stomper. The relaxed acoustic finger picking of "Stumbleine" and "Thirty-Three" is masterful, with the latter becoming one of the Pumpkins more famous songs. Bassist D'arcy Wretzky doesn't stray much from root notes, but her interplay with Chamberlain lays the groundwork for the Smashing Pumpkin's tunes, particularly "Jellybelly" and "In the Arms of Sleep". Corgan's song-writing is to be commended here, as his songs are usually not structured in typical verse-chorus-verse form. "X.Y.U." is positively random, at times strikingly evil-sounding, but 30 seconds later, obnoxiously overdone. Nevertheless, the song has seemingly no structure, but goes somewhere. The band maintains the focus on the music, and their talents are spotted at several points, including times where they use piano, synths, even throwing in a harp for the sweetly gentle "Cupid De Locke". The musicianship is especially tight "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness", and it's a major advantage for the album.
The albums floats towards it's conclusion, with the last 6 tracks fading down softer and softer, ending with the charming "Farewell and Goodnight", where each band member takes turns behind the microphone, joining Corgan for vocals. The lyrics are like those of a lullaby, with the band harmonizing "Goodnight, my love, to every hour in every day. Goodnight, always, to all that’s pure that's in your heart"
. Wretzky's voice truly steals the finale, as her voice is stellar, but the point at which Corgan, Iha, and Wretzky sing together is beautiful. The song ends with a reprise of the album's opening piano piece, and it fades into nothing. If you've been brave enough to stand the 28 tracks, the reprise of piano might bring you to tears, as though you've completed something epic all by yourself. It's the moment that makes "Mellon Collie" all the worth it. The only question is: Can you take it"
Farewell and Goodnight