The Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

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Opening declarations/if you read anything in this review, read the following two paragraphs: 1) This is the zenith of the 90s’ zeitgeist, of hate yourself lyricism and of musicians using as much space as the CD allowed and of having two of said CDs. 2) This is the second best Smashing Pumpkins’ album. 3) No one is denying that Billy Corgan isn’t an asshole, but like Kanye West, Billy Corgan has earned his assholery through great musicianship. 4) No one is denying that Billy Corgan’s voice isn’t grating, but if you can get past that, you’ll find that he had quite the melodic arsenal. 5) The first disc is much better than the second disc. 6) The famous singles from this album all had some of the greatest music videos there ever was. 7) Jimmy Chamberlain is a God and there are days when I think he was the greatest drummer rock has ever seen. 8) This is a much better album that The Wall that inspired it, which also had another prick in the wall for a frontman. 9) This (and Siamese Dream) are better albums than anything released by The Cure that inspired them, who also had a really hammy frontman.

Finally and most importantly, if Billy Corgan released this and maybe Adore and definitely “Stand Inside Your Love” (his last great song), and proceeded to pull a Kurt Cobain as his lyrics constantly suggested he might, I think he’d be as equally revered. There’s this weird phenomenon that if an artist dies early, they’re immediately accepted into a metaphorical Valhalla. It happened to Jimi Hendrix, it happened to Kurt Cobain, it happened to 2Pac (who had a much, much, much worse double album around the same time as the Pumpkins) and it happened to the Notorious B.I.G. (ditto what I said about 2Pac, but not nearly as many “much”’s) and if you follow the simple steps of releasing a few critically acclaimed albums and dying right after, it could happen to you. God forbid if the musician lives a long life but starts putting out bad music that drags their name down or whatever. At the very least, a lot of people would probably be bald (which is a choice) instead of balding (which isn’t) in imitation/celebration of their favorite rock star.

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If you were anything like me in high school, this was probably your favorite album. If it wasn’t, then it was probably your second favorite album after Siamese Dream. The Catcher in the Rye was probably your favorite book and you would have rather re-read The Catcher in the Rye than read anything else by J.D. Salinger, even though “She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together” from “A Girl I Knew” and Sybil’s itaclizied and exclaimed “This is a yellow” in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (it makes more sense in context; you should definitely read it since it’s one of the best short stories out there) are both worth more than anything Salinger has written in Catcher as you’ll discover years later when you do decide that you should probably read something else by J.D. Salinger. You probably ate your home-packed lunch in the library with similar outcasts. You probably took writerscraft so you could unload your pent-up personal drama in written form on your poor writerscraft teacher. You probably got pulled into guidance counselling because your poor writerscraft teacher was concerned about you based on the stories and poems you wrote.

Anyway, that was me and that was then, and I like to pretend the first eighteen years of my life never happened because thinking back, it wasn’t so much living as it was a husk going through the motions. (Sidebar: if you could delete certain memories without losing anything else, would you?) But at the time, this album meant a lot to me: I had Billy Corgan’s face as my MSN Messenger avatar (with a quotation from Watchmen as my name), I knew the words in the breakdown of “Zero” by heart (still do) and I bought the ZERO t-shirt the moment I saw it. But at some point when I was eighteen, having discovered OK Computer and a girlfriend, I lost all interest in Billy Corgan and his worldview/weltschmerz. The lyrics in Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness get made fun of a lot and deservedly so; “Despite all the rage, I am still just a rat in a cage” is the least of our worries.

I listened to the album in 2012 in anticipation of its fifty-disc reissue (which I downloaded, saw that the guy who uploaded didn’t bother with track names or track numbers, and then promptly deleted because #firstworldproblems) and couldn’t make it all the way through. It’s long, Billy Corgan’s personality seen through his lyrics is unbearable and worse of all: it reminded me of someone I didn’t want to be reminded of. But it’s hard to deny that this is a great album, and like Tusk to Rumours, this kind of had to be a double album; if you made a single disc playlist of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, it probably wouldn’t match up to Siamese Dream, which says more of the greatness of the latter than it does anything of the former. But I’m going to do so anyway, because a lot of the ugly songs on the second disc didn’t interest me then and interest me even less now, because time is never time at all, and because it’s easier to do so.

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This is my single disc playlist:

1. ”Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” which is a nice little piano ditty which demonstrates what I wrote previously about Corgan’s melodies. It also leads nicely into “Tonight, Tonight.” That being said, the strings (which I’ve never noticed before today) don’t add anything.

2. ”Tonight, Tonight.” Observe how Jimmy Chamberlain metamorphoses from a metronome in the verses into a machine gun during the choruses. Observe how economical the arpeggios during those verses are: Corgan is just moving a single finger per chord. In his review of the album’s reissue, Ian Cohen writes that “Has there been anything like “Tonight, Tonight” since? Orchestral strings typically signify weepy balladry or compositional pretension in rock music, not wonderful, lovestruck propulsion.” Actually, there has. Though they’ve been inspired more by David Bowie and the Pixies and Bruce Springsteen than they were the Smashing Pumpkins, I’m sure the guys and gals of Arcade Fire played this song a few times before recording Funeral.

3. ”Jellybelly,” which is more what people expect from the Pumpkins after the piano intro and the chamber rock of “Tonight, Tonight”: the guitars and drums work up quite the onslaught.

4. ”Zero,” which there’s very little to note except that the riff is obviously their best and that I was mugged once while singing along to this song in broad daylight near Lawrence and Keele under an overpass while no one was around (or more aptly, I was mugged once because I was singing along to this song) (they took an iPod and ran away and I learned two lessons: to never sing in public unless you’re in a Karaoke bar and to never call the police after a mugging because they won’t/can’t do anything about it and make you wait an hour while they send someone to get you; I really wanted some reassurance at the time because my view of Toronto as a nice city had completely been shattered and the cops didn’t offer that in the slightest).

5. ”Here Is No Why,” which has another great riff: a slow crunch and then a legato resolution. That’s really all I have to say about this one too; I never knew the words that Corgan was singing until researching them just now and … they range from surprisingly good (“Desperate and displeased with whoever you are, and you’re a star”) to unsurprisingly Corganesque (“May the King of Gloom, be forever doomed”).

6. ”Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” whose lyrics have been memeified by people who want to pretend that they never suffered teen angst or unrequited love or overbearing parents or anything really that was beyond their control. But the song is one of the album’s best regardless of your stance on the lyrics, with a pummeling rhythm and a better melody than the previously covered non-singles songs.

7. ”Cupid de Locke,” which serves the same purpose as Siamese Dream’s “Spaceboy”: a short, sweet interlude, with washes of harp and Billy Corgan on reserve. This also starts the album’s prettiest stretch of songs.

8. ”Galapogos,” and Corgan had a really silly penchant for purposefully misspelling song-titles, didn’t he? But regardless, it’s like a more fleshed out “Cupid de Locke,” with synthesizers washing over you and a guitar that best embodies the album cover.

9. ”Muzzle,” which is my favorite song on the album. If people do overlook it, it’s probably because Billy Corgan’s nasally whine is at its forefront here (it begins with “IIIIIIIIIII FEEEAAAAARRRRR THAT I’M ORDINARY JUST LIKE EVERYONE” with practically nothing else going on to distract), and the guitar doesn’t really do anything throughout, at least, until the bridge. But Jimmy Chamberlain helps nudge it along with drumrolls placed at the right times and after the right words, and Corgan’s singing has rarely been so triumphant (instead of melodramatic) and his words so likeable (for the most part, anyway): “Have you ever heard the words / I’m singing in these songs? / It’s for the girl I’ve loved all along”; “Some children laughed I’d fall for certain / For thinking that I’d live forever”; “And I knew the secrets in your spires.” It’s one of the few times that it sounds like Corgan’s singing on top of a hill overlooking the city absorbing the beauty than at the top of a bridge threatening suicide. Definitely deserved to be the album’s last proper single instead of “Thirty-Three” instead of a throwaway promo single.

10. ”Porcelina of the Vast Oceans,” which, as you can guess from the Yes-like title and the 9-minute runtime, is the Smashing Pumpkins’ attempt at progressive rock, and … well, it’s not really progressive at all; it’s just a longer-than-your-average Smashing Pumpkins song with an added intro. But the intro is the album’s prettiest stretch, and the razor-sharp riff is the culmination of everything the first disc has been building towards.

11. ”Thirty-Three,” which as mentioned, was the last single to be released from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, probably because the keyboard melody is direct, but absolutely failed to catch on, probably because it was too soft and couldn’t smash anything. But it’s a nice tune and I’m not a professional at deducing time signatures but it seems to me to constantly switching between 5/4 and 4/4. Someone else want to clarify?

12. ”1979,” and I remember thinking back then that the repeated the “tuhnghhhh” sound was the most unique sound I’d ever heard in any rock song and I remember reading up on what was producing it and I remember forgetting what produced it. Whereas “Zero” or “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” were anthems for teen angst, “1979” was an anthem for a lot more: teenage lives. There’s the punkish/outsider attitude (“Shakedown, 1979 / Cool kids never have the time,” which is the best opening couplet of any Pumpkins song; “Justine never knew the rules / Hung down with the freaks and ghouls”), the apathy at everything (“Weeeee don’t even care”), the hedonism, the present. I can’t imagine these lyrics being sung by anyone else except Corgan, to be honest. Actually, thinking about it, that’s true for all of their best songs.

13. ”X.Y.U.,” easily the highlight of the second disc not named “1979”: great guitar sound, with Corgan’s voice losing its nasal quality and becoming a menacing snarl to match it. Like “Porcelina,” it could have stood to lose a few pounds, but like “Porcelina,” whatever.

14. ”Farewell and Goodnight,” which, like “Good Night” on The Beatles, isn’t a great song by any means, but is a great closer. It’s here where the Smashing Pumpkins felt like a band instead of Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlain and their faceless and nameless sidemen; every member comes in to say their goodbyes (except Chamberlain). And it nods back to the intro; Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness isn’t a concept album because there isn’t a concept (although it’s thematic), but it’s not hard to see why so many people called it one – it certainly felt like it at times.

—– —– —– —– —–

The other songs? The title and opening measure of “Fuck You (An Ode to No One)” are the best parts of the song (back to writerscraft, I titled a short story “Fuck You” after the guidance counsellor mishap, but decided against handing it in after my friend convinced me not to); Billy Corgan just takes the opening measure and milks it for all its worth. Elsewhere, I hear the guitar of “Quiet” and melody in the climax of “Zero” being recycled (compare how he sings “Intoxicated with the madness” with “No way, I don’t need it”) and the bridge sucks, so thank God for Jimmy Chamberlain’s forearm muscles. Similarly, “Where Boys Fear to Tread” is all about its first minute. The quieter songs, “To Forgive,” “Take Me Down” (by and sung by James Iha) and “Stumbleine” are nice reprises, but completely unsubstantial (every word out of Iha’s mouth sounds like it might be his last). “Tales of a Scorched Earth” is probably the worst song here, because the vocals are plain ugly (versus unhinged, as they are on “X.Y.U.”) and it doesn’t help matters that it’s placed right after “1979” on an album that’s otherwise well-paced. And the last block of songs starting with “We Only Come Out at Night” (which sounds like the theme song for cartoon vampires; make of that what you will) all feature synthesizers and Jimmy Chamberlain pretending to be a drum machine, which makes me wonder why Adore came as such a shock for everyone – they were well on their way to electronic-rock.

You might argue that I’m forgetting a song for my single disc playlist, but you’re forgetting that I want to forget.

A

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3 responses to “The Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

  1. I haven’t listened to this in a couple of years. Despite really being a fan back in the day, I don’t rate it at all anymore. Possibly a really strong 10 track album in there. Most of which is included on your one disc playlist …

  2. Pingback: Aphex Twin – Drukqs | Free City Sounds·

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