It is hard to believe that two whole decades have passed since the Smashing Pumpkins released this double album – this sprawling, epic masterpiece that defied critics and surprised many by redefining the double album and concept rock album as things that can indeed simply be longer records of extremely high quality throughout.
Smashing Pumpkins were always a strange band. Outsiders from Chicago, they were never part of the holy trinity of grunge, made up of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. They released ‘Gish’ in 1991, a superb album, but one that was completely blown out of the water by “Nevermind” and the Seattle explosion. Billy Corgan and co. returned in 1993 with ‘Siamese Dream’, with singles “Disarm” and “Today” becoming genuine rock anthems of the highest calibre. The Pumpkins had arrived; they had delivered their seminal piece. So where to next?
I was 17 in October 1995. I had just started college a fortnight before “Mellon Collie…” emerged. As such, it will forever evoke memories of the freedom, excitement and trepidation of those first steps into post-school life. Everyone was in and out of a poxy relationship that they would never get over; everyone was happy and disaffected in equal measure; everyone was in a band, and they all drank in Fibbers every Saturday. Or so it seemed. And it was in this Parnell Street institution where we first threw ourselves around the dancefloor to lead single “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”, one of the angstiest songs of that angst-ridden era in alternative music and a perfect application of the soft-loud dynamic which also defined that time.
But to focus on the individual singles or standout tracks would be wrong. Because, unlike almost any other double album, such as the “White Album” or “Use Your Illusion I and II”, each individual ‘part’ of “Mellon Collie…” does contribute and sum up to the ‘whole’ of the album. I might as well get this out of the way now – this is a far, far superior album, to the ‘White Album’. There is little, if any, filler. There is no “Wild Honey Pie” or “Ob-la-di”. There are 28 songs. Over 2 hours of music. And all written, recorded and produced just over 2 years after releasing one of the greatest guitar rock albums of all time in “Siamese Dream”.
This clip below is of a live version of “Thru the Eyes of Ruby”, the 7th song on Disc 2. Over 7 minutes of equal parts beauty and rage. An era-defining song of cement-heavy guitars, thundering, absolutely thundering, drums and agonised vocals, building and building and building into several climaxes. It is but one example of the quality of the album tracks on this record.
In terms of the musical make-up of this album, it is all over the place, with the above track being typical of the album as a whole. The first disc opens with a short piano instrumental, the title track, followed by the well worn hit, “Tonight, Tonight”, which is a strained, but beautiful, ballad. And those two adjectives describe so much of this album. The sheer beauty of the pianos, strings, clean and acoustic guitars is always in the same neighbourhood as some degree of pain, with a massive dynamic uplift in mood usually just around the corner. And then there’s the barnstormer all out thrashers, such as “Tales of a Scorched Earth”, “Ode to No One”, and “X.Y.U.”, all of which which marry Jimmy Chamberlain’s explosive drumming with Corgan and James Iha’s layers upon layers of guitar, distorted to an extent that has rarely been heard since. The studio version of “Thru’ the Eyes of Ruby” had 70 guitar tracks. That is quite frankly, ludicrous. But listen to it – it was worth it!
In between these extremes, there are simply phenomenal anthems. “Zero” and “Muzzle” are songs that will never be forgotten by those of us lucky to have been around for their release. The former rocks along at a nice little headbanging pace with that classic riff defined by octaves and natural harmonics. This track also showcases some of Corgan’s most quotable lyrics, before a gloriously messy solo gives way to all hell breaking loose, after which we return to one last hook. Amazingly it’s all over in well under 3 minutes. The latter track I firmly believed was pure poetry 20 years ago. The 37 year old me wants to distance myself from that stupid teenager and scoff at the immaturity of it all (Corgan was 10 years younger than me now when he wrote it as well), but I can’t. It remains a wonderful piece of grunge literature; of its time and timeless. A magnificent, uplifting work.
On the subject of the lyrics generally, while they seem a tad trite and adolescent in places today, I do recall finding the CD not too long ago and seeing the booklet completely dog-eared and in a far from perfect state. Because every day for months, I sat down to listen to this album and had learned the words to almost every song. It was probably the last album I was obsessed with. Because as you exit your teens and enter your 20’s, unashamed rock-star worship progressively leaves your life, but the albums you pored through in immense detail in those years must have had something.
We must also mention second single “1979”. A strange song that just refuses to fit anywhere. A mid-paced gentle rocker; a nostalgic reminiscence defined more by loops and electronic beats than the monstrous electric and soft acoustic guitars elsewhere. A coming of age tale, given life by one of the most memorable music videos of the time. Dancefloors all over the city heaved – in a very lighthearted way – every time this came on.
And while “Mellon Collie…” has gathered dust as a CD for more than 15 of the last 20 years, and now lives in the attic in that format; while it never made it onto my mini-disc player in the late 90’s; and while the ripped Mp3’s barely got a spin through the noughties, it was added to my Spotify account a few short months ago. For one reason and one reason only. Those ballads. Those wonderful, soporific, yet uplifting ballads form part of my baby son Thomas’ ‘going to sleep’ wind-down playlist. I wanted those songs from “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” to be among the first sounds he ever heard in this world. Because this is not an album. It’s a soundtrack. And because 20 years on, it deserves another spin. And another fan.