The Smashing Pumpkins: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
The Smashing Pumpkins released two of the most highly acclaimed albums of the 1990s. Mellon Collie comes close on the heels of Siamese Dream and the rarities album Pisces Iscariot. It is also a double album of a sweeping breadth and occasional stunning heights. There are 28 tracks, but 5 of those are bona-fide icons of 90s alternative music, and deservedly so.
This album was released on October 24, 1995, but due to circumstances beyond my control, I’m only getting around to finalizing this review a week after the 20th anniversary. As such, I’m going to stick to talking about those 5 classic alt-rock songs and sumarizing the album as a whole at the end of the review. I apologize if you were hoping for more.
After an instrumental piano pieces which sets the tone, track two on the album, titled “Tonight, Tonight” features a flood of violins, soaring harmonies, and incredibly tight drum beat. The video is also deservedly one of the highest acclaimed videos of all time. The video, a retelling of “A Trip to the Moon” one of the first science fiction movies of all time.
When The Smashing Pumpkins re-released some of their albums in deluxe editions a few years ago, one of the highlights of that whole set was a band only version of “Tonight, Tonight”, in which, you not only don’t even miss the strings, but a spotlight is shone on how good the foursome were during this period. Do yourself a favor and listen to the album version (above) and the band only version immediately afterward to see for yourself.
Track four on the album, “Zero”, received major radio play, but never spawned an accompanying music video. The song, driven by the repeating lead guitar line, hook-heavy lyrics, and that breakbeat before the bridge leading to the spitfire chorus. Billy Corgan, if he knew how to do two things in the music business, both are proven with this track. He wrote guitar hooks like few other people of this era, and he wrote angst-filled non-specific tirades that disgruntled masses could shout along to and with which they could identify.
“Bullet with Butterfly Wings” was the first salvo fired prior to the album being released. Featuring many of the same traits as “Zero”, this track stays quiet before kicking into overdrive on the chorus in every sense of the word. With a faux-goth guitar and drum beat during the verses, the lyrics are front and center, full focus on Corgan, in order to drive home the feelings which were being conveyed. The world sucks, and no matter how much raging you do, you are only given your own little space in which to live your life. As a teenager when this album came out, just beginning to see how the world worked, this song looked like it had a lot to offer. Looking back with hindsight, it’s crafted to appeal to the downtrodden and sullen demographics.
Alright, already onto disc two, with two more tracks left for me to cover. Track seventeen on the album, the song “Thirty-Three” is decidedly more layed back than several of the other singles, perhaps that was the reason it became the final single released from the album. Nevertheless, the track does have a lot to offer. The lyrics are more complex than several of the other songs on the album; the instruments are lush and spare at the same time, and the lyrics, while still containing the trademark Corgan vocal drawl, were allegedly written as a way to confront Corgan’s life during the year before this album was released. He had recently moved, he was going through a divorce, and the band went from indie-curio to mega-rock stardom in one album flat (Gish to Siamese Dream). To him, this felt like a culmonation and reckoning with what had happened in so short of a time. Interestingly, this song does not appear on their greatest hits album.
The song “1979” seems to be about being nostalgic for youth lost, but more perhaps is it about the inability to maintain said youth. Even if there are youthful things you still enjoy doing (swinging, doing puzzles, watching cartoons, etc) your body keeps getting older. As such, “1979” is about that awkward point between childhood and adulthood where one has to think about their future while simultaneously clinging to their all to recent past. We don’t know where our bones will rest, “forgotten and absorbed to the earth below”. The video seems to confirm my hypothesis, and features characters doing decidedly child- and teenage-like things, from rolling inside a tire to bowling with soda and lime mixers.
While The Smashing Pumpkins are still nominally a band, this represents the last effot with the original (and best) line up. While still on tour behind this album, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was fired from the band. Guitarist James Iha left in 1998 followed by bassist D’Arcy in 1999.
Billy Corgan has maintained that he is the person people think of as “The Smashing Pumpkins” and has continued to record, release and tour with new members under the same moniker. Still, what these four members accomplished keeps them firmly in a list of one of the best bands of the entire 1990s.