Though considered by many to be the bloated afterbirth of the Smashing Pumpkin’s grand breakthrough, Siamese Dream, it’s a fault in judgment to look on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness as merely an encore that overstays its welcome. Every bit as grandiloquent and sprawling as its title suggests, Mellon Collie may span 28 fully formed songs – no half-minute interludes or tape-slice fuckery here to puff up the track list – loosely wrapped as a heavy-handed concept album, but there’s not an ounce of fluff here. There’s no knocking Siamese Dream, for sure, but where that album wore a thick layer of My Bloody Valentine underneath its pop metal couture – listen to Loveless‘ “Sometimes” and tell me you don’t hear a fuzzed-up “Disarm” – Mellon Collie sees the Pumpkins completely in their own element, unflinching and ambitious.
Forget that “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” became the idiot youth mantra for a mid-90s winter. Very little on Mellon Collie wreaks as much of radio-bred alt-rock as that song, even on the first disc’s other standout single, “Zero,” that wanders far from the post-grunge fodder dominating the air waves at the time. Set that gothic glam gem against the orchestral anthem “Tonight, Tonight,” and it’s obvious that, strictly among the first half of the first disc, Mellon Collie entirely deflates any rock star posturing. For as many singles as “Dawn to Dusk” (the disc one subtitle) spawned for casual fans, its less user-friendly counterparts boast just as many jaw-dropping moment’s that totally evaded the mainstream. Take “Cupid de Locke,” a Valentine’s card on amphetamines that could make any art rock purist scrunch their nose, or James Iha’s closer “Take Me Down” that’s oddly balanced between a lullaby and fairy tale journey to the Earth’s warm center.
As Iha gently coos, “Take me down to the underground,” in disc one’s final moments, that’s exactly where disc two, “Twilight to Starlight,” takes its cue, albeit in different form. Slipping into a drop-down metal riff fit for a back-alley headbanger’s ball, opener “Where Boys Fear to Tread” twists its time measure against Jimmy Chamberlain’s bass drum kicks and Iha’s signature guitar quirks before segueing into an ever-thickening mosh stomper. Follow that with the all-too-familiar dreamy discotheque of “1979,” bare-bones ballad of “Stumbleine” and, one of the album’s hidden treats, “Thru the Eyes of Ruby,” and Mellon Collie amounts to a long succession of genre-shockers. Working up to the album’s five-song conclusion that poses an instant turn-off to most listeners – starting with “We Only Come Out at Night” that drifts into a Little Nemo, let’s all go beddy-bye dreamscape – there are absolutely no slouched efforts. The swirling piano and cymbal splashes of “Beautiful,” and cradle-rocker “Farewell and Goodnight” commit wholeheartedly to their aesthetic and, as a result, pull more rabbits out of their hat than most bands would dare venture to. In that sense, Mellon Collie is balls-out brave in its endeavor. Even the pierced, nasal wailings at the peak of “By Starlight” – I have to admit, I cringe everytime Corgan belts out, “At last!” – can’t rightly be labeled a flat-out failure.
To top off the vast soundscapes Mellon Collie covers its nearly two hours of solid craftsmanship, the Pumpkins still had a wealth of material besides that surfaced on The Aeroplane Flies High singles compilation that followed. A far cry from Corgan & Co.’s best – less glossy and willing to wear its blemishes on its sleeves, unlike 1994’s Pisces Iscariot that set a lofty standard for B-side albums – it proved to be the bottom of the creative well for the band. Though it may be infinitely sad, it’s no wonder they hit a crippling dry spell in the proceeding years from which they have yet to recover – no matter what kind of last-ditch reunion they may have tried to pull off. But in retrospect, what a truly exhaustive and brilliant run it once was.