Shem The Pen's Album Review: Revisiting "Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness"
Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness ended my relationship with the Smashing Pumpkins in 1995. The debut album Gish was a moderately interesting piece of psychedelic rock although it always sounded like one long song to me. The chops were there, but the writing wasn't. It got there on Siamese Dream, an absolute stone(d) classic. It's a masterpiece, a perfectly realized document of a band its breakout moment artistically and commercially. Siamese Dream is a guitar players' album disguised as an alt-rock album.
It's a showcase but never a show-off - Billy Corgan always picks just the right tool or technique for the moment. The songwriting has taken a huge leap, from radio rock to subtle pop to noisy prog. My favorite was “Soma” from the moment I heard it while sitting cross-legged between two hi-fi speakers in some college apartment. Maybe it was the mushrooms, but I felt like I'd just taken an underwater adventure to some wild kingdom, with the final guitar echoes being the emergence from the waves. It was rad.
So I was really looking forward to the follow up. Corgan promised the world, as he's wont to do. “It's going to be insane,” he told Spin magazine in 1994. “Double CD. It'll be acoustic and totally slamming electric, instrumental, orchestral pieces. Pet Sounds, Sgt Pepper, you name it, it's in the stew.” Now this, I admire. I love the idea of an artist shooting for the cosmos, stretching his talent to its limits: Joyce's Finnegans Wake, Wallace's Infinite Jest, Wu-Tang Clan's Wu-Tang Forever. I wasn't sure if he could pull it off, but I was sure whatever mess we got would be interesting.
It wasn't. Mellon Collie committed a few cardinal sins but mostly it was just dull. It didn't earn its grandiosity for me, like Corgan was just following through with his big ambitions without any other purpose. Infinite Jest isn't just big for the sake of it, the run on monologues and comprehensive backstories and 388 footnotes all being part of its message about our relationships in the electronic age.
I got the sense Billy Corgan just wanted to make a double album and if some messages slipped in there on the way, hey cool man. A few tunes popped out: “1979” is an undeniably infectious pop song, “Muzzle” is a great bit of faux-Cobain, and “Porcelina of the Vast Ocean” is another underwater sonic epic like “Soma 2: Judgment Day.” But then some really bad songs popped up and I mean really bad.
“We Only Come Out At Night” was the worst offender for me, but the awkward noise-rawk “Tales of a Scorched Earth” is the most infamous for the way it followed “1979” and probably turned off new fans right away. The less said about James Iha's “Take Me Down” the better, although it wouldn't sound out of place on an Art Gunfunkel solo album.
But time has been kind to Mellon Collie. I'd like to say this is due to its prescient musical ideas but really it's just that now I can easily send the shit songs to the recycle bin and make my own mix. I never cared for the programming on this album. Corgan clearly abandoned his idea of “one hard, one soft” CD, but the result didn't make any more sense to me. I will say that the original triple vinyl issue has a unique track-listing that I prefer so much that I'm almost tempted to shell out a few hundred for a copy.
Because now I'm realizing that I was wrong about this album. It's deceptive - it comes off as teenage angst and rock star ennui but it's delivered with more subtlety and poetry than I'd remembered. “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” taken on its own merits is a cry of spiritual frustration - we can accept religion or not but we're still gonna die someday so what does it all matter? “Bodies” is sex without love: “No bodies felt like you.” The sweet piano pomp of “Lily (My One And Only)” hides a story about a voyeur and a dark double entendre: “Cause I'm hanging in this tree/In the hopes that she'll catch a glimpse of me.” “Love” is like an update of Stephen Stills' “Love The One You're With”: “Love, love, it's who you know.”
The acoustic “Stumbleine” has my favorite lyric of the whole album: “Misspent youth faking up a rampage/To hold off the real slaves/Paid off and staid.” Wow does that ever resonate with me. That line speaks to Corgan's mission with the album. It's about how teen angst is not a piece of your past that you grow from, but the key fuel of your spirit that will haunt you forever, for good or bad. Some of us run from it, some of us are stuck in it. Frank Zappa said, “Life is like high school with money.” Pretty much, so it's not a bad thing to return to an album so keyed in those emotions as Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.