Would you believe that back in 1995, The Smashing Pumpkins were the greatest rock band on Earth and their double album that year, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, was the greatest rock album ever? No? That, folks, is called hindsight, because in 1995, everyone talked like it was true. As it turned out, both band and record turned into some of the more era-specific icons in pop culture history, things which weren't exactly a flash in the pan, but were only specific to a certain frame of time they were never able to change enough to escape.
Yeah, The Smashing Pumpkins were given the slate to be the official replacement to Nirvana upon Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness once its leadoff single, "Bullet with Butterfly Wings," became a massive hit. It was a reasonable mistake back then since "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" held such Nirvana-esque aesthetics. It had a gloomy, downcast sound, repetitive lyrics, and only a handful of guitar riffs. Then "1979" was released and everyone - myself included - swooned over it. "1979" became the defining single of Mellon Collie for its whispiness and longing tone. Then came "Tonight, Tonight" and everyone going nuts yet again over the fantastic string instrumentals courtesy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Yeah, those are all well and good, but nearly everyone forgot that they were just three singles from a behemoth of an album. There are two discs to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness which loosely weave together something conceptual. The Smashing Pumpkins used all that space to perform some odd experiments and turn it all into their magnum opus. Now, conceptual magnum opus albums have a habit of either being great, career-topping masterpieces or bloated, unfocused messes. When I first gave Mellon Collie a listen back in 1997 or so, I tended to lean more toward Mellon Collie being a mess, but that's why I decided to go back and listen to it again before reviewing it. At least I REMEMBER it being messy. Maybe that had more to do with my ever-growing distaste for frontman Billy Corgan's behavior.
Mellon Collie is a lot tighter and better than I remember. For all the hype about the incredible musical scope of it, on the first disc, only the first three songs sound like they're out of place. The title song and "Tonight, Tonight" are the oddballs because they introduce a swooping classical sound. The third song, "Jellybelly," could be argued as being out of place since it's experimental, but it's experimental grunge/metal, so its not entirely unlike a lot of the other songs on the album. It's "Jellybelly," though, which kicks off the real tone of the CD. It's dark but catchy, unmistakably grunge with pop notes. "Jellybelly" loses its composure at the end, but it's pretty enjoyable until you get there.
The concept of Mellon Collie, according to Billy Corgan, is a symbol of the circle of life and death. The two discs of the album are named Dawn to Dusk and Twilight to Starlight. The Dawn to Dusk side is frequently uptempo, with the instrumental stars usually being drummer Jimmy Chamberlain along with either bassist D'arcy Wretzky or guitarist James Iha. Song forms tend to alternate between rage and sweet happiness, with Iha taking the lead on the faster, angrier songs like "An Ode to No One" and "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" while Wretzky stands out on the poppier tunes like "Here is No Why." That's the general rule, but not THE RULE. "Love" is a standout example of a dark, slow plodder with Wretzky's low notes being the primary, driving force of the instrumentals.
Dawn to Dusk does have an overly long wind down time, starting with the eleventh track, "Galapagos." It consists of four songs: The one I just mentions, "Muzzle," "Porcelina of the Vast Ocean," and "Take Me Down." The strongest song there is "Porcelina of the Vast Ocean," a gorgeous track infused with classical influences but one which still overstays its welcome at over nine minutes.
If Dawn to Dusk represents the vigor and anger of youth - which a strong case could be made for - then Twilight to Starlight is maturity. The poppy sound from the first disc is completely abandoned. I don't think it's an accident that three of Mellon Collie's four singles came from Dawn to Dusk.
Twilight to Starlight features a classic rock influence right in its opening track, "Where Boys Fear to Tread." "Bodies" fuses classic rock with grunge in one of the more seamless combinations of the two sub-genres I've heard. Iha and Corgan are the stars of that song, which has dark underpinning which would sound perfectly in line with anything Ozzy Osbourne has done.
Sometimes, Twilight to Starlight opts to slow things down. At its very best, the second disc is thoughtful, mature, wistful, and nostalgic. The whole shebang can be heard in "1979," one of Mellon Collie's premier singles. At its worst, Twilight to Starlight can sound like a randomized mess which takes the worst of vocal and studio tricks in misguided attempts at experimentation. "Tales of a Scorched Earth" is a rather egregious example of this. Wretzky and Iha seem to barely show up, Chamberlain sounds drowned out half the time, and Billy Corgan buries his already-raspy singing voice under a lot of raspy, bad electronica. Those are the songs you listen to and start to wonder what the hell the whole point was.
Again, the disc tends to wear out its welcome. "Thru the Eyes of Ruby" runs over seven minutes and pulls one of those last-minutes harmony presto-changeos which bands all seemed to love in the 90's. The dominant style throughout the second disc is definitely grunge, which is sometimes mashed together with classic rock, and while the results tend to waver, you can't deny that it makes for some rather interesting songs. Billy Corgan tends to do a lot of screaming and growling here, and the one constant factor on Twilight to Starlight is that he's at his worst when he tries doing either of those things. I know a lot of people aren't too keen on the high rasp of a singing voice he possesses, but it's good for what it does, and when he wants to let it flow naturally, Corgan really sounds quite beautiful. "Tonight, Tonight" and "Porcelina of the Vast Ocean" are both sterling examples of Corgan at his vocal best. His performances don't bode quite as well on the second disc, though, especially when mashed-up experimentalism like "X.Y.U" are running well over five minutes and feature him screaming his lungs out.
While Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness tends to derive its influences from all over the place, it has a surprisingly tight and concise focus. It contains a lot of experimentation which, while showcasing some of the potential of grunge, also may have assisted in the hastening of the grunge era's death. There's a lot of classical music on Dawn to Dusk, for example, and individual songs like the stuttering "We Only Come Out at Night" lend even more diversity and interest. However, everything also results in overly long songs and wind down times, and Mellon Collie seems to have trouble finding any ground between the rough and polished, and both discs tend to run on a bit longer than need be.
Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is definitely important to the late grunge era, and it's not a bad pickup overall if you're willing to overlook the flaws.
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