Mellon Collie’s Trip to the Moon: Smashing Pumpkins’ flawed, massive opus

Jeff Terich
Smashing Pumpkins Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is not the Smashing Pumpkins‘ best album. That honor goes to Siamese Dream, an album that represents the pinnacle of alternative rock before it became a punchline.

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is also not the most “important” Pumpkins album, however dubious the distinction, though that’s probably arguable. I’d say that Siamese still wins that one for representing such a dramatic shift in the band’s ambition and capabilities.

However, without question, Mellon Collie is the biggest Smashing Pumpkins album in terms of both exposure and just how massive a statement it is. Comprising 28 tracks, Mellon Collie doesn’t seem quite so overwhelming when held up against Corgan’s far more indulgent (and far more embarrassingly titled) 44-track Teargarden by Kaleidyscope of 2009, Mellon Collie nonetheless seemed pretty groundbreaking when it arrived. In the alt-rock age, grandiose prog-rock-inspired statements of this kind were out of vogue, at least on a surface level. Bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden may have helped to usher a backdoor classic rock aesthetic into a youth market, but Corgan ultimately became the figure who most unapologetically embraced that kind of ’70s excess full on, with a newly and temporarily healed Smashing Pumpkins doling out two hours of massive, albeit wildly diverse rock music packaged into a strangely thematic, almost anachronistic package.

Given the history of the band, it’s actually fairly astonishing Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was able to materialize. Through the process of recording Siamese Dream, relationships within the band had fallen apart. D’Arcy Wretzky had quit the band (temporarily), James Iha and Corgan weren’t getting along, and Jimmy Chamberlin was in and out of rehab. Yet for as hairy as the situation became for the band, they were ultimately able to patch up their broken friendships, record a box set’s worth of music, and ascend to being the biggest band in America, at least for a time.

It’s easy to overlook just how much of a cultural staple Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was in the mid-’90s, and how it transformed the Smashing Pumpkins from buzz band to rock titans. The album earned the band seven Grammy nominations, of which they won one — “Best Hard Rock Performance” — as well as debuting on the Billboard album chart at No. 1, later earning an elusive Diamond certification from the RIAA for selling 5 million units. The band was on “Live with Regis and Kathy Lee.” Then they crashed Hullabalooza on The Simpsons.

Still, it’s a little odd that, of all the Pumpkins albums to make such an ascent, the one that succeeded was the one that lends itself to the most division. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is a beast, a fancifully packaged double album that masquerades as a concept album — complete with complementary halves, “From Twilight to Starlight” and “From Dusk Till Dawn” — despite having no clear concept, at all. In hindsight, a statement of this magnitude was probably inevitable from a songwriter like Corgan, whose biggest influences — Rush, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd — hardly ever settled for anything less than gigantic. Siamese Dream, it should be noted, was already a double album when pressed to vinyl. And there’s a great deal of precedent for what Corgan sought with Mellon Collie: The Wall, The White Album and Physical Graffiti, for starters. And like those three celebrated, yet much-argued albums, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness represents a cross section of the band’s most powerful and least essential works, all combined into one impressive, albeit unwieldy package.

The thing to remember with Mellon Collie, though, is that at least half of the album is made up of tracks that sound like singles, and mostly excellent ones at that. Five of them were, officially, singles, and a couple others got their share of radio spins as well. Corgan, reportedly, wanted the first disc’s roaring rocker “Jellybelly” to be the first single, which would have been a fine choice; it’s just as strong a track, maybe even better than the actual first single, “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.” And yet, “Bullet” probably made the most sense for an opening shot—Chamberlin’s rumbling tom-toms, an explosive quiet-loud climax in its chorus, and Corgan’s instantly memorable but almost painfully adolescent lines like “The world is a vampire/Set to drain” and “Despite all my rage/ I am still just a rat in a cage.” Corgan raged against a lot of machines on Mellon Collie, but at least with “Bullet,” it was pretty fun.

The rest of the singles on Mellon Collie represented a much less on-the-nose representation of the Smashing Pumpkins, who, while triumphant at doing so, had earned a reputation as being gloomy angst-mongers. “Tonight, Tonight,” paired with a quaint video homage to George Melies’ “A Trip to the Moon,” was made up not of thick, fuzzy guitars but melodramatic strings and chamber pop grandeur. It’s easily one of the prettiest tracks on the album, alongside the dreamy “Thirty-Three” (also a single), and for that matter largely more successful in capturing emotion and sentiment than some of the ballads on the album. “Zero,” while more streamlined and simple than “Bullet,” possesses the same bratty energy and Corgan sneer, both awesome for being such a monstrous and jagged rocker, and entirely ridiculous for its climactic breakdown: “Emptiness is loneliness/ And loneliness is cleanliness/ And cleanliness is Godliness/ And God is empty/ Just like… me!

For every moment of Corgan letting loose the snarling teenager within, however, there is one of graceful transcendence. The second disc’s “1979,” one of the most ubiquitous tracks to be launched from the album, is one such moment. It’s not the best Pumpkins song ever written, nor even the best song on the entire album (I’m partial to “Muzzle” and “Thru the Eyes of Ruby,” myself). But it’s still among the songs Corgan has written that come closest to perfect. It’s the band’s highest charting hit in the U.S., and for a good reason — the band cut through most of their more abrasive tendencies and simply delivered a beautiful, dreamy pop song that loses the noise, but not the momentum. As anthems go, it’s no “Cherub Rock,” but it’s wonderful all the same.

There’s a certain baseline of excellence to the album’s five singles that make the mass appeal they engendered feel all the more deserved. And yet, the remaining 23 songs veer a thrilling if unpredictable path that finds the Pumpkins both rising to new creative challenges and often being defeated by those very same challenges. It’s not wholly accurate to say that Mellon Collie is frontloaded, since its first track, the piano instrumental title track, seems pretty unnecessary. It’s a nice enough but ultimately frivolous gesture that seems to say, “This album is important.” And it would have been just as effective if the album began with “Tonight, Tonight,” “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” or, arguably, “Fuck You (An Ode to No One).” Still, the front half of the album is pretty solid on the whole. The 9-minute “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans” may not entirely justify its length, but it’s a pretty exciting epic all the same. “Love” buzzes with a goth-shoegaze cool. And “Muzzle” is an utter masterpiece of a pop song, rarely letting up from its three-chord structure but continually ratcheting up the drama. It’s one of Jimmy Chamberlin’s best drum showcases on the album, but even more than that, it’s a platform for Corgan to transcend a hissy fit. It begins with the touching confession, “I fear that I am ordinary just like everyone,” and embarks on a three minute journey of introspection and mortality, achieving a kind of revelation of maturity and realization with the couplet, “And the world so hard to understand/ Is the world you can’t live without.”

But Mellon Collie‘s first disc also contains a few tracks that fall flat. “Cupid de Locke” is one such moment, a fluttering dream-pop poem that seems to evoke nymphs frolicking in a field but seems more like an interlude than a fully cooked song. And “Take Me Down,” co-written by James Iha (who also co-wrote two of the best songs on Siamese Dream, “Mayonaise” and “Soma”), is a barely-there wisp of an outro that might have been best left on the cutting room floor.

The gulf between the most stunning and least essential tracks on Disc Two is even wider, it turns out. “Where Boys Fear To Tread” and “Bodies” are both outstanding, the latter in particular for going for the throat, and better yet, giving Chamberlin even more of a chance to shine. And “Thru the Eyes of Ruby,” despite its realization of all the band’s prog-rock excess, does so magnificently well, packaging a sprawling odyssey into one of the best melodies the group ever wrote. It’s a real beauty, no matter how much art fluff it contains.

Smashing Pumpkins mellon collie and the infinite sadness

But then there are tracks like “X.Y.U.”, which threatens to destroy but just sort of stomps in place, and “We Only Come Out At Night,” which is an entertaining but inessential goof that would have made a better b-side. And it’s not as if there weren’t plenty of great b-sides that were spawned from the album. The eight-minute “The Aeroplane Flies High,” which also lent the Mellon Collie-associated b-side box its name, is the band at their heaviest, while maintaining their focus. It might not have fit well on this album, but it stands on its own as a hell of a track.

I haven’t been shy about my criticisms of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness over the years, and that hasn’t changed. There are still a fair number of songs that just don’t hold up to its best moments. And trimmed down to a single album, it can be essentially perfect. But I acknowledge my take isn’t the prevailing one. Ian Cohen of Pitchfork said the album has “almost no filler.” And Treble’s Dustin Allen said “there’s not an ounce of fluff here.” I may not share the opinion of Mellon Collie as being a near-perfect statement, but I can certainly understand the fondness it stirs up.

I was 14 when Mellon Collie came out, and I have a distinct recollection of the “who’s-on-first”-style comically misunderstood conversation I had with a friend, who on the day of its release had no idea that the Pumpkins were going to conquer the world: “I just got Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” “Oh dude, that sucks.” But in just a matter of months, the album was everywhere in my fairly narrow radius of experience. All of my friends owned a copy, as did the girls I admired from afar. DJs at school dances spun “1979,” and MTV played the band’s videos on a daily basis, if not hourly at its peak. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness became as ubiquitous as it aimed for, and it had every reason to be.

For how fractured and sprawling Mellon Collie is, it’s an easy album to like, and even an easy album to love. It’s bizarrely tied to the sometimes difficult visions of its creator, but it’s also universal in its best moments—nostalgic, open-hearted, warm, vulnerable and fearless. There’s always a sense that double albums will inevitably take a few steps too far into over-indulgence, and that’s definitely true of Mellon Collie. But even the ones that seem more streamlined, such as the Mellon Collie-inspired M83 album Hurry Up We’re Dreaming, likely wouldn’t have been conceived without something like this to exist as a guiding light. Smashing Pumpkins maybe could have done with some better editing on Mellon Collie, but even when it fails, it does so spectacularly. Yet when it succeeds, it’s untouchable.

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