Talking Over the Music – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness: 20th Anniversary Tribute, Pt. 1

(Hey, everybody! Look, we’re back. Well, by “we,” I mean that I am back, and my brother Danny is here with his first post for the blog. It’s part of his latest project, a compendium of 26 album reviews, with one artist/group for every letter of the alphabet. While he knows it’s not called the SBC’s for a reason, he’s kicking it off with the Smashing Pumpkins and their double-stuffed masterpiece Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, just in time for the album’s twentieth anniversary today! In honor of its double-album status, the review is split into two parts, with part two coming tomorrow. So without further ado, happy 20th, Ms. Collie, and heeeeere’s Danny!)

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

Review by Danny

“I fear that I am ordinary, Just like everyone…”

            Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is not the best album ever recorded. It isn’t even the best album the Smashing Pumpkins ever recorded. However, it could very well be the one for which I can say more than any other, whether it is praise, analysis, criticism or purely overjoyed ramblings about how awesome it is (and I won’t be able to say it all now). Whereas the band’s previous work Siamese Dream is simply perfect in my opinion, Mellon Collie stands as much more than that, and it decidedly shaped my life in ways few other albums or songs have. More specifically, it helped me embrace my teenage years and the experiences it brought to me. It was the soundtrack of a moment, just as it was for many wistful teenagers of the 1990s, and the memories I have attached to it are timeless.

            Even from an objective point of view, it is absolutely amazing. Within its double-length span, the Smashing Pumpkins embodied the teen state of mind through their boldest, most diverse music ever. And there is a lot of it: ever the outsiders, they proudly embraced excess and ambition in a musical era desperately short of both. The sheer quantity and quality of music testify to a band at the height of its powers, having just found the elusive sweet spot between artfulness and mass appeal. And what better point could there have been to bless the world with their teen-dream theatrics than 1995? The halfway marker for the postmodern decade… my birth year. I was born for it.

            But it’s not just about me. Looking from a broader perspective, Mellon Collie is one of many examples of coming-of-age fiction to be found in cultures all around. Whether they have been passed down orally for thousands of years, read to children from books or directed by John Hughes, they seem to universally acknowledge the personal significance and tentative excitement of that gray period between childhood and adulthood. From the perspective of American history, though, our culture didn’t fully turn its attention to its impressionable youth until around the 1950s, when the post-WWII kids grew up and quickly became the biggest audience for mass media, including, of course, popular music. From that point on, this hip new culture followed a fascinating path through many subversive movements that came and went, from Beatlemania to progressive rock to alternative rock to hip-hop.

            Mellon Collie was probably the logical conclusion of teenage culture as we knew it in the 1990s. It’s huge in scale, adventurous, rich with detail, vaguely conceptual (?), alternative by design and very, very generous. And it panders… a lot… But I would argue that it’s never too obvious or insincere in wooing impressionable listeners. In fact, with all its sheer attention to craft and creative depth, it’s among a very narrow line of albums that dares to capture the complete mindset its young audience may share, in all its awkward glory. It’s for the kids who respected Nirvana and the hip alternative-rock movement they inspired, but felt left out just for wanting something that truly connected to them. And while that’s not to say others didn’t find comfort in the music of other contemporary bands, it’s safe to say only the Pumpkins made a point of uniting people around their ideals. They dared to provide a voice that not only rallied them together but also spoke sincerely and positively on their behalf. The results of this brave gesture are incredibly rewarding to this day.

Right from the beginning, with a cinematic piano introduction putting on all the airs, you know you’re in for a grand, sweeping journey. You aren’t just listening to a lovely, perfectly ornamented opening song of an album, but taking the thrilling first steps into an expansive fantasy world. Maybe my description is coming off as pretty overblown and corny, but not when the piece ends and the opening orchestral sweeps of “Tonight, Tonight” kick in. Every time this song comes on, I feel like I’m hearing it for the first time. It’s the entire album’s defiant romanticism and ideals rolled into a four-minute mission statement, in which the mission is just to believe, at least for a couple of blissful hours, that anything you feel can move the heavens. Billy Corgan’s raspy voice never sounded more rousing or assuring, and the collective band performance, backed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, thunders with passion. How else can you react but to wonder if this could be the only album you’ll ever need?

Also, the song has the best music video of all time. Period.

The first disc actually manages the seemingly impossible task of carrying this momentum throughout. “Jellybelly”, the tightly wound pop-metal firework that follows, somehow alternates effortlessly between outrageous angst and exhilaration; it stands alongside the first two tracks to form one of the most exciting stretches of music I’ve ever heard. “Zero” definitely leans toward the angsty side, with particularly infamous lyrics, but it’s still great.

I guess this would be a good time to bring up the lyrics, which are often mentioned as the album’s biggest flaw. There’s no dancing around the fact that, especially compared to those on Siamese Dream, they can be over-the-top and inane. Whereas the songs on that album carefully punctuated Corgan’s impressionistic words with lines of powerful directness, here you get gems like, “I’m in love with my sadness,” and “A secret star that cannot shine” (ugh), and “Love is suuuiciiiiide!” not to mention a few entirely bizarre sections on “An Ode to No One” and “X.Y.U.”, among other tracks. Still, isn’t that part of the point? In what other way would a teen express his/her puffed-up emotions than through awkward, on-the-nose wannabe poetry? They’re definitely more intentionally broad and obvious than anything else Corgan has written before or since, but that’s just the way Mellon Collie communicates its messages.

And if you can stomach this lyrical approach, you’re in for an amazing ride, through the bouncy “Here Is No Why” to the timelessly angry “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” and into darker, more subdued territory on the somber “To Forgive”. From then on it’s a musical grab bag, in which emotional extremes like the furious rant of sound “An Ode to No One”, the superficial lust anthem “Love” and the harp-driven romantic fantasy “Cupid de Locke” make perfect sense, especially when sequenced in a row. The latter has perhaps the strangest, most disembodied arrangement in the band’s catalog. “Galapogos” (I know it’s misspelled) is a gorgeous, understated ballad. I can’t imagine that “Muzzle” wasn’t released as a proper single, because it’s simply awesome, in a word; it rocks like a heavier, poppier “Tonight, Tonight” and has an incredibly satisfying finale.

“Porcelina of the Vast Oceans” is a mini-masterpiece in itself. It winds through several different sections and dynamic shifts across its enormous length, showcasing the amazing production and the band’s newfound unity as performers. The lyrics, bringing to mind fantastic imagery like majestic ships and nautical adventure, collide with the digitally polished alt-rock backing to form what is essentially a pop version of steampunk, which is actually as cool as it sounds. The climax is one of the album’s finest, most accomplished moments.

Finally, to top off disc one, the band brings in an unexpected surprise in the form of a contribution from James Iha, the band’s second guitarist, “Take Me Down”. Iha’s personality as a songwriter is completely different from that of Corgan; this soothing country-esque ballad sounds like he wrote it half-awake, hoping to calm the listener down after all the previous excitement, and it works wonders. There couldn’t have been any better way to close off the first half of this epic journey.

I know I’ve already written volumes about how great and important Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is, but there’s still a lot more to say, and I’ll do the favor of saving the rest for the next part. If you haven’t gotten tired of me, stay tuned.

(RADDman here. Besides “Tonight, Tonight,” this is my favorite song. My brother definitely has a talent for description, but “incredibly satisfying” doesn’t do it justice. Singing along to it makes me feel so damn good and just so alive, no matter what mood I’m in. “And I know the silence of the world!”)

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