1990s \

Classic Reviews: Smashing Pumpkins, ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’

8
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: October 23, 1995
Label: Virgin

This review originally ran in the December 1995 issue of SPIN. In honor of the 20th anniversary of the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, we’ve republished this piece here.

Billy Corgan wants to rule — and own, and be — the world. Well, he’s hardly the first. The hours-long, two-CD opus that Smashing Pumpkins have now ushered into being is the kind that always signals a pop group’s heroic quest for the fundament of their own imaginings, the ultimate meaning of rock — and art, and life. Whether it’s the Beatles, Yes, Springsteen, Prince, Guns N’ Roses, Fleetwood Mac, or Aphex Twin, double-album artists are little princes tending musical planets they hope their fans will settle. The point is to get as many people as possible obsessively convinced that this is it, the only album worth owning. If the talent matches the pretension, a double album can convince you of that by encompassing and expanding the pop movement that produced it. If not, it’s just Chicago VII.

Committing himself to this dangerous task, Billy Corgan has built the asteroid of his dreams. Mellon Collie jumps beyond the sound perfection of Siamese Dream to take on the entirety of today’s monster rock — the arena-sized style that transformed the dinosaur insanities of heavy metal and art rock by steeping them in punk’s emotional acid bath, burning off the music’s fat but preserving its grandiloquence. Corgan’s co-producers Alan Moulder and Flood helped define their work with such big-brained artists as My Bloody Valentine, U2, Nine Inch Nails, and PJ Harvey; those are just a few of the challengers Billy takes on (and in) here, swallowing his influences whole and spitting them out covered in the new skin of Smashing Pumpkins pop songs.

This isn’t the kind of double album you’ll mentally condense into one disc. That’s partly because Smashing Pumpkins make music that rejects standard song shapes in favor of a more ambient, uncontainable sonic narrative. Some moments here do stick: the gnarly “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” and the heartfelt “Thirty-Three,” a lighter-lifter if there ever was one. The nine-minutes-plus “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans” perfects the band’s special whoosh-crunch brand of lysergic metal, and “X. Y. U.” is one of the meanest and most cathartic songs ever recorded about a girl. But these are just especially cultivated patches in a garden that’s all very lush. Working like a band instead of a studio unit, the Pumpkins lean hard into each song, overcoming the coldness that often weakened their attack in the past.

Yet Mellon Collie isn’t quite the masterwork it means to be, and the reason it falls short is the reason Corgan aimed so high in the first place. To fill in the blank between himself and the world, he needs to start out as solidly as possible; great double albums do this, either through a focused individual vision (Prince, Springsteen) or a dynamic group tension (the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac). But it’s precisely Corgan’s ambivalence about his own place, and the romanticism and anger such uncertainty produces, that make him strive so hard. That’s also why, despite his arrogance, he’s so loved by fans — he sings for the awkward adolescent in all of us, the mad little creature wanting to conquer, destroy, and embrace life all at once. As his peers find their master narratives and claim them — Bono wrestling with the devil, Harvey nailing the feminine, Reznor channeling depravity — Corgan finds it hard to focus, and cleverly makes his handicap his strength.

So he takes up residence in “the resolute urgency of now,” as he calls it on the first vocal track on Mellon Collie, and hopes that momentary passion proves strong enough to keep things together. He begs his listeners to “believe in me as I believe you.” But what he believes in (or, more precisely, what he can capture in words) fluctuates constantly. One moment he despairs, then puffs up like a hero; he decries love, then claims it’s all he needs. He decides nothing is important, then declares there’s no way to disconnect. Because Smashing Pumpkins’ music is itself so relentlessly introspective, with even the angriest songs imploding instead of exploding, Corgan’s struggles to define himself drain power from his work.

This is a problem he’s clearly working on — as odd as it is to say about a self-styled grand opus like this one, Mellon Collie shows Smashing Pumpkins to be still growing, still moving. Rock is in another titanic age; its new demigods are reinventing the myths and redrawing the territories. Times like these make it easy to think too much of yourself. So Corgan chooses a role with maximum versatility: Several times, he calls himself a fool, and if there’s any thread holding this epic together, it’s the journey of the bravest and most whimsical of Tarot card figures, who ventures into all territories as a guide for the less adventurous. Billy might have to circle the world a few times before he gets to own it. But the journey isn’t going to get boring any time soon.