Talking Over the Music – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness: 20th Anniversary Tribute, Pt. 2

(Hey, everybody! We needed some extra time to make sure the second half of our tribute to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness by the Smashing Pumpkins was perfect. But we needed time to make sure it was perfect. You can check out Part 1 here! So without further ado, heeeeere’s Danny!)

Before I get started with disc two, I’ll just bring up an interesting note about the album’s history: In the time leading up to the release of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Billy Corgan famously compared it to Pink Floyd’s double-length masterpiece The Wall, released in 1979. That album itself became an essential listen for teenagers of its era, with its insanely ambitious production and story-driven lyrics about a troubled, mentally scarred rock star. Mellon Collie, while not exactly aiming to tell an obvious story, definitely carries on its predecessor’s fondness for sheer scale and overblown theatrics, which I guess goes to show that the young generations’ tastes in pop culture don’t really change. If that wasn’t enough proof for me to say that, 2011 saw the release of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming by M83, yet another two-disc epic that saw the French electronic group reaching new levels of success and devotion in very much the same way those two previous works did for their respective bands. Sure enough, frontman Anthony Gonzalez cited Mellon Collie as his main inspiration.

So there is a clear line to be traced across these remarkable albums, all aiming higher than everyone else in their time, spanning two discs and being released almost exactly 16 years apart. This was actually brought to my attention by the questionable minds at Pitchfork Media, of all places, whose review of the reissue of Mellon Collie is actually really well done. Maybe in 2027, another act will take the torch and make the same big leap the youth will desperately need.

Anyways, disc two, intentionally or not, has a very different feel from disc one. The lyrics are generally less direct, the energetic anthems are all but dropped and the tightness of the band performances is downplayed with both rougher, sludgier recording and electronically influenced arrangements. The distinct digital production, another important factor that sets the album apart from Siamese Dream, is further emphasized by these different sounds. The opening one-two punch of “Where the Boys Fear to Tread” (probably the weakest song on the album) and “Bodies” sets the tone for a generally darker, moonlit second hour, with hyperactive madness in place of blind optimism.

But sure enough, we’re faced with another complete tonal shift as “Thirty-Three” politely comes in. The arrangement is a lovely, genuinely quirky combination of graceful piano, country-esque guitars and an understated drum machine; it seems to have foreshadowed today’s dinky indie-pop sound. Far more gentle than most of the previous tracks, “Thirty-Three” is the first in a perfect trio that features some of the only truly adult themes on the album. The lyrics are poetic reflections on Billy’s troubled marriage at the time, as are those of the follow-up “In the Arms of Sleep”, a dreamy, quietly longing ramble of a tune rich with enchanting twangy guitar work.

And then, of course, there’s “1979”. A sentimental, vague recollection of Billy’s youth, this song is something of an inversion of Mellon Collie’s style, from recapturing those years of his life to looking back fondly on them. The magic is in the arrangement once again; it’s as though the entire backing track is a great big rush of childlike wonder coming back to you. In every detail this is probably the best example of a nostalgic anthem ever recorded. It’s only fitting that it ended up being the album’s biggest, most fondly remembered hit.

“Tales of a Scorched Earth”, the very next track, sounds like anything but a hit. It’s insanely manic and totally over-the top, taking the metallic sludginess of “Bodies” and “An Ode to No One” to its greatest extreme. The music and vocals are barely even discernible! That little bout of insanity is followed by “Thru the Eyes of Ruby”, a dark epic that somehow matches the sheer scope of “Porcelina” and mirrors it in tone. Billy returns to full angst mode here, but his lyrics and vocals manage the amazing achievement of making the youthful venom sound as seductive as it did in high school. As for the collective band performance, I believe it’s as good as anything the Pumpkins have ever done. The ambitious dynamics are pulled off to perfection, resulting in a dramatic whirlpool of guitars and charging drums. Jimmy Chamberlain’s jazzy, pounding drum work is particularly highlighted. For a gripping seven minutes, the album descends into its own world of irresistible darkness to reach an electrifying climax.

As if “Ruby” wasn’t dynamic enough already, it seems to start fading out in the last minute until it fades into… an unexpectedly quiet, calm ending that sounds lifted from a completely different song. At first listen one would question the purpose of this moment, but somehow, despite the contrast to what came before, it feels completely right. It brings to mind one of the most personal memories I have of listening to this album, which I experienced while this moment was playing. I’d rather not mention it…

Anyways, the song is a masterpiece. And that odd coda happens to lead quite nicely into “Stumbleine”, the album’s gentlest and most intimate track, played only on an acoustic guitar. Billy’s hushed vocals and delicate picking convey a romantic nighttime atmosphere that ends up dominating the rest of the disc, hence the name Twilight to Starlight.

But not before the big mother of a song “X.Y.U.” charges in and threatens to throw the whole thing off the rails. Another lengthy epic, this time 7 minutes long, it’s not unlike the out-of-control jam “Silverfuck” from Siamese Dream, except with brutally straightforward fury in place of that track’s wildly irregular dynamics. The vocals and lyrics are completely bizarre; Billy hisses, grunts and screams incoherently for nearly the whole time, like the singing equivalent of a Nicolas Cage performance. Why does he launch into a demented riff on “Mary Had a Little Lamb” during the first breakdown? When will this lunacy end? What is even happening??

“AND IN THE EYES OF A JACKAL I SAY GOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

Aaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!

Well. Thank goodness the rest of the album chills out, and I mean really chills out. Clearly, there’s no better way to follow that musical firestorm than with “We Only Come Out at Night”, a tongue-in-cheek campfire song for the outsider in us all, played on a zither of all things (look it up, it’s a real instrument). “Beautiful” is more unusual still, featuring looping electronic sounds and duet vocals from bass guitarist D’arcy Wretzky. Her sweet performance and the sensual arrangement do a better job of capturing teenage romantic longing than the actual songwriting does, and the track feels shallow as a result. Still, even though Billy himself mentioned this reservation in the liner notes for Mellon Collie’s reissue (which are great, by the way), I think there’s something revealing and oddly touching about the superficial expression behind “Beautiful”. Awkward, faded beauty is still beauty after all.

“Lily (My One and Only)” is a lighthearted detour, clearly informed by The Beatles’ self-titled album. It’s pretty slight, but it adds still greater variety to the album as a whole. The lyrics, funnily enough, are about a young Billy spying on a former crush through a window! “By Starlight” features a jaw-dropping fade-in, surely the album’s most gorgeous moment in terms of pure production. The rest of it, jazzy and downcast, is nearly as stunning in its heavenly atmosphere. It’s the last moment of dark romanticism in a double album full of just that, not to mention one of the best. Finally, James Iha delivers the closing sentiment with another Beatles tribute, “Farewell and Goodnight”. The odd but sweet lyrics are sung in turns by all four band members (even Jimmy!) before they sing the final refrains together in a stirring display of unity. There was simply no better way to close this epic journey than with this very literal lullaby, a moment so comforting and kind as to make you feel you’ll never need to hear anything else in your life.

Oh, and it ends with a reprise of the title track, bringing everything full circle. Pretty cool, right?

So… Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. I think I’ve said enough. And yet I feel like I could keep going forever, such is its greatness and sentimental value. If I had been 16 going on 17 in 1995, a year when double albums, ambition and Beatles tributes were practically uncool, I’m sure I would’ve embraced it just as much as I did in 2012. Its appeal is timeless and utterly sincere, presenting a little universe of brilliant tunes and sonic wonders for anyone willing or desperate to get lost in it.

And boy, does writing about it bring back a lot of feelings and memories. Even though I didn’t dwell so much on those things, I avoided that knowing the album and its songs could represent different, equally special experiences for other people blessed with them. For me, it was the Christmas guitar concert of 2013… the cheerleader I could never approach… grad night… the drama of my senior year. Through it all, the Smashing Pumpkins were there when no other band was, just as they always will be for me and everyone else who wants their own small, personal moments like those to feel truly special.

Sure, plenty of other artists have this goal in mind. Then again, if the Pumpkins weren’t the cultural outsiders they always have been, there would probably be more double-length masterworks that dare to be ambitious, inspiring, ridiculous, embarrassing and awesome all at once. It’s safe to say that the band may never be in higher form or aspire to such a great purpose again, but I’m glad they reached their peak for just long enough to make their lasting statement, because it will always hold a special place in my life. And so…

To Billy Corgan, James Iha, D’arcy Wretzky and Jimmy Chamberlain, along with the future members who have kept the Smashing Pumpkins as they are…

Thanks, I guess.

“Believe in me as I believe in you… Tonight.”

(Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is a really special album, for Danny, myself, and many others, and so we associate many memories with it. Danny said his, but I, RADDman, will share a few of my own real quick.

I watched our other brother and his band stun a crowd with a performance of “1979” in a dimly-lit high school cafeteria.

“Tonight, Tonight” reminds me of standing on the cliffs of Tintagel in Cornwall, feeling the wind and ancient energy of the place and believing I could do anything.

And sometimes, I get in foul moods where overdramatic lines like “I know the silence of the world” resonate fully.

Now that Danny has given us all this lengthy and lovely welcome back present, regular posts for Space Cadet Glow will commence once more starting Friday, November 13. In the meantime, even though this one’s from Side 1 again, have some “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”)

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!”)