Dusting ‘Em Off: The Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

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For better or worse, Billy Corgan is a perfectionist, and during the early years of The Smashing Pumpkins, the last thing he wanted was his band to be lumped in with grunge. No, he wanted the Pumpkins to be a rock band and not just the next Nirvana as they had been labeled following their debut, Gish. It was a label that was hard to shake, though. Even Siamese Dream, an excellent follow-up, further pegged them as a one-dimensional band. And the album’s recording sessions had significantly strained relationships within the group. So, despite having made a name for themselves, 1994 found the Pumpkins looking to regroup. That’s where their third, and most ambitious, album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, comes in.

For any band, releasing a double album is asking a lot of listeners. Fans not only have to listen but also trust that a record’s length is worth their time. Few bands have been able to pull off the double album successfully, and while Mellon Collie succeeded tremendously, looking back it’s possible that it could have been cut to its core and still made the same commercial impact. That being said, if that had been the case, we would have lost some exceptional deep cuts that make the album a true relic of the time. Mellon Collie is an enormous effort with equally grand ambition that puts all the cards on the table. For the Pumpkins, it was either jump and go for broke or get left behind.

Corgan described the album as “The Wall for Generation X.” A bit overstated, perhaps, but it certainly was The Smashing Pumpkins at their absolute peak. The soothing piano found on the opening title track told listeners right away that this was going to be a new kind of record for the Pumpkins. Understanding just how different this was for the band does require some audio context. Listen to Gish and Siamese Dream, and then you’ll hear what I’m talking about 0n Mellon Collie.

It’s on Mellon Collie that we hear upgrades on the old formula, as well as sounds that were brand-new for the Chicago alt rockers. The nine-minute “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans” gives us the band’s first foray into using electronics, as its melody subtly moves from slight new-wave to grunge. On the heavier end, “Where Boys Fear to Tread” and “Bodies” are downright metal as Corgan professes “love is suicide” in the latter. These tracks, along with “Zero” and “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”, help set the standard for Corgan’s post-Adore songwriting.

On yet another end of the spectrum, we get to hear James Iha on the almost-country “Take Me Down”, as he sings on the gliding track with slow strums and slide guitars. Certainly no one saw this coming. Hearing The Smashing Pumpkins playing with this much range was quite a dramatic change. Not even Adore, which was littered with electronic sprawling ballads and slow, low melodies, could recapture the sound that was nailed on tracks “1979” and “Tonight, Tonight”. Albeit successful in the long run, at the time they were big risks that blew the door wide open musically. The Pumpkins had figured out how to be a relevant rock band without losing one bit of their edge.

Twenty-eight tracks is an overwhelming amount of material to sift through, but digging through the record reveals what the band was capable of as a unit. As a result, Mellon Collie is the Pumpkins’ only number one album, and it got them half a dozen Grammy nominations. This record also marks the period when everything changed for the four, from the sound to the lineup. What was supposed to be a fresh start ended up being the beginning of the end. It’s ironic how this scenario revealed such brilliant music, which still holds water today.

Through this truly group effort, Corgan ultimately accomplished his goal: a rock band, a pinnacle album, and no more Nirvana references. Mellon Collie gave the band staying power to ride out the grunge wave. How they came out the other side, however, pegs this album as a relic of their glory days when all the band’s elements were actually in place, and it seemed like nothing could stop them. In the end, the album captures the band at a critical moment, one that has yet to be re-created or even hinted at since the band dissolved into what it is today. Did they have to go as big as they did? No, of course not, but in doing so they were saved from self-destruction for one more album and established themselves as one of the biggest bands of the decade. Regardless of what the state of the band may be today and in the future, this record will always be The Smashing Pumpkins’ legacy and an alt-rock classic.

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