The Smashing Pumpkins dropped a bomb on this date twenty years ago with the release of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, a wide-ranging double album that stormed the mainstream with a parade of infectious singles and music videos, sweeping up ubiquitous airplay, accolades, and trophies in its wake. (Of the six singles, four became legitimate pop hits.) It also gave us a Billy’s shaved head and the iconic Zero logo. The epic double album covers the rock gamut, and it spawned the equally eclectic box set of b-sides The Aeroplane Flies High a couple years later. Two decades later, it’s still a force to be reckoned with. That’s the historic overview. For me, it’s a desert island twofer, something to which I still listen regularly, and a real touchstone as far as my own musical, artistic, and personal development is concerned.
I’ve debated and hesitated for months over whether to write anything for this occasion, but I can’t not acknowledge the date. Also, I think that SP’s influence has been rather downplayed or neglected, particularly this last decade, and that the band is often seen as a 90s holdout or nostalgia act than a continuing band. (Having seen the band on their most recent tour a couple months ago, I can report that Smashing Pumpkins is alive and well, sounding great live, and still releasing damn good songs.) I doubt Billy Corgan’s temper has helped the band’s legacy, but their significance and influence can’t be denied.
I’ll keep this relatively brief, partially due to time, but mostly for a few other reasons:
1. I can run my mouth and fingers about this album and band all day, and I don’t want to risk losing the forest for the trees.
2. It’s a mammoth work with a great deal of mythology around it. There’s not much I can add in an objective sense that hasn’t been already written. (Pitchfork and Stereogum articles put it more in an historical context.) If I were to really get wordy about it, I’d want to write about each piece. But there are 28 tracks altogether, and I wouldn’t really be breaking new ground.
3. I hold it on such a high pedestal that I don’t think I’d be able to fully do it justice anyway.
Another reason I’d like to opt out of the novel is that this is actually related to another looming topic that I’d like to hopefully touch on in a series of posts over the next year: 1996. In short, my reverence for that year is akin to the baby boomer fixation on the sixties and seventies. For an adolescent me, many formative albums were released during “the long 1996” (late ’95 to early ’97), which arguably begins, for me, with MCIS. (In fact, three of my Top Five — those still alive at the time — dropped seminal albums then.) More on that later.
I touched upon Mellon Collie some here and a little more here. It’s arguably distasteful, but I’ll go ahead and quote myself from that 2011 post as a starting point: “[At that time], SP was music. The incredibly variety on [MCIS] showed me that a rock band could be multi-dimensional, and that the musical possibilities could be endless.” To put it in context, I was twelve when the album came out and purchased it months later, a bit before my thirteenth birthday. If I’m not mistaken, I got it once “Tonight, Tonight” put the Top 40 — as well as MTV with its landmark music video — in a choke hold. Until that point, I had really liked various albums or compilations, but I dare say that MCIS was the first album that really led me down a rabbit hole and left a permanent mark (i.e., that I remain fascinated by today). I spent countless hours listening on headphones and reading the lyrics and looking at the artwork in the liner notes, lost in the myriad textures and styles. From there I quickly worked backward through the catalogue and “caught up” with the band’s history and output, but MCIS was my patient zero.
The diversity of style is part of what captured my attention. In a rock context, it really does have everything: anthemic hits (“Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “Tonight, Tonight”), acoustic folk-laden ballads (“To Forgive,” “Stumbleine,” “Thirty-Three”), quirky alternative novelties (“Lily (My One And Only)”), the grunge-inspired (“Where Boys Fear To Tread”), dreamy psychedelia (“By Starlight”), nostalgic pop (“1979”), hard-driving rock and metal (“XYU” and “Tales of a Scorched Earth,” respectively), the sweeping rock epics (“Porcelina of the Vast Oceans,” “Thru the Eyes of Ruby”), and more. So much more. (For example, where else would a song like the lovely “Cupid de Locke” comfortably fit?) Disc 1 kicks off with the title track, a contemplative instrumental featuring piano, strings, and synths, giving way to “Tonight, Tonight,” a song that somehow manages to be anthemic and incorporate sweeping symphonic passages (performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, to be exact) without being a ballad. It could be argued that the actual rock album begins with the third track “Jellybelly,” with the rest being a prelude — and what a prelude it is! Finally, regarding style, you can hear both where the band has been (e.g., Siamese Dream- and Gish-esque “Here Is No Why”) and things to come (e.g., “To Forgive” sounds like an Adore outtake). And the fact that all four band members sing at some point on the album is worth mentioning. The lullaby on which they all sing — “Farewell and Goodnight” — closes the album, ending with a solo piano passage which complements the album’s piano introduction. Just hit “repeat all” and you’re good to go.
Of course, as I mentioned here, ambient sounds abound, consonant and dissonant alike.
Most of the albums I’d heard until that point were, in a vacuum, rather homologous. Granted, the albums I had were diverse, but each one was rather consistent. Mellon Collie, on the other hand, was an entire sonic universe, and I found each system and planet appealing in a different way. Because of my age, and the fact that many of my friends are a few years older than I, I’m a bit out of step in my Pumpkins fandom, as they hold Siamese Dream on the pedestal. A great album, no doubt. I’ve worn out my copy of that also. However, I was at an age or stage when Mellon Collie was released that they likely were around the time of Siamese Dream or its predecessor Gish. Perhaps it’s because it was my first deep SP dive. However, twenty years later — writing that is a rare instance in which I feel old — I listen to MCIS more often than Siamese Dream. (I also listen to 1998’s Adore much more than a bulk of the catalogue. Expect a piece on that forgotten gem in a few years if not before…)
There’s no grand point to this post other than to mark the occasion and to publicly thank Billy, Jimmy, James, and D’Arcy for it. Here’s to another twenty.
And with that, KA-BOOM…