Saturday, July 25, 2009
The Smashing Pumpkins - Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
I've never heard this album all the way through, so let's get down to it and see what I've been missing, shall we?
1. "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" - As if this two-hour epic wasn't imposing enough as it is -- six charting hits, millions of copies sold, all inside a jumbo-size 2xCD case almost too big to fit in the little cubby hole beneath my car's CD player -- this beast of an album opens with an instrumental prelude, the calm before the storm, if you will. Brace yourselves, this stirring overture orders. It's going to be a bumpy ride!
2. "Tonight, Tonight" -- I've been back and forth on this song for years. I always enjoyed The Smashing Pumpkins most when they played feedback-drenched freakouts like "Rhinoceros," "Cherub Rock," or "Frail and Bedazzled." Being the American answer to My Bloody Valentine, Ride, or Chapterhouse would never have made them MTV superstars but up until this point it was almost possible to believe that they could actually have it both ways. The stirring strings of the CSO quickly closed the door on those hopes, and the high-concept award-winning video put to bed the days of blurry and layered Creation-flavoured clips. I know it's the second track on the album, but you might as well consider it the opener, and as such it does a fine job of shitting down the throats of everyone who thought they knew what to expect from "Da Pumpkuns," as they were fondly called all across Chicagoland. Great song. I used to cringe at its earnestness whenever it would come on the radio but in the context of the album it might make sense. That's something that kids in the post-CD age will never understand!
I put this on in the car and my girlfriend said it sounded like "Final Fantasy music." Like a theme for some scene with an airship taking off. Pretty much OTM.
3. "Jellybelly" -- That summer you and your friends first got cars, the last day of school, that first hour after you walked down the halls and out the doors, piling in the backseat and driving off towards... did it really matter where? Memories...
4. "Zero" -- I've heard this song hundreds of times but never realized how short it really was. Say whatever you will about this band writing pompous, bloated songs, but this gets right down to business and doesn't waste a bar. I should be sick of this overplayed hit by now but instead its revealing itself as one of the juiciest cuts of modern rock the 90s had to offer, a song I'm perfectly content to forever associate with my formative years. I was pretty comfortable with this realization and I feel it's the first of many passages into old age to come.
5. "Here is No Why" -- I guess this is okay. Definitely a Smashing Pumkpins song. Some of these lyrics are definitely suspect and I wonder how well I'm going to last down the stretch if there's more of this to come, which there certainly will be. This is coming from someone who owns almost the whole Placebo catalog, btw. You heard me right. Got any poppers? No? Anyway, kind of an MBV-ripoff of a song title but it's too bad that's all they seemed to be stealing from them at this point in their career. Some days I really love this song. Others it gives me a terrific headache. Who knows why?
6. "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" -- The lead single from the album and one of the most unflinchingly fiece documents of adolescent angst ever cut to tape. "What do I get for my pain?" Billy Corgan asks us. Nearly a decade and a half later and our generation still doesn't have an answer!
7. "To Forgive" -- I really dig this. Laid-back, mellow, MC&tIS's slow burner if there ever was one. This should have been a summer album and this should have been the soundtrack for kids with nothing to do and nowhere to go and 90-degree afternoons. Too bad the album dropped one week before Halloween, 1995. Fitting for the Pumpkins, you say with a smile? Not when you had Gish and Siamese Dream coming out in May and July and would find Adore hitting the streets in June. What could be even more fitting? Billy walking ontstage at a Tinted Windows concert with an acoustic guitar in hand, taking to Taylor Hansen's microphone (too stunned by his boyhood idol's sudden appearance to make a move) and singing an unaccompanied rendition of this song, changing the lyrics to "I forget to forget, you are what's important" as he sets his (everlasting) gaze on James's surprised and clearly touched face. Their future embrace is just the beginning of one comeback that the world never expected.
8. "An Ode To No One" -- Some websites list this song as "Fuck You (An Ode to No One)" but either that's incorrect or my copy is the special Family Edition of the album. Anyway, this song is a real "Fuck You" to the listener! You always hear millennial nu-metal bands getting the bulk of the blame for trends in over-compression of rock music, but maybe you need to go back a few years beyond that to get to the roots of the modern "loudness war". I always enjoyed the angsty catharsis of the average Smashing Pumpkins song, especially after a run of Matchbox 20/Counting Crows/Dave Matthews Band songs on the radio, but this is a little too much. What a mess this song is, and at 5 minutes it's a pretty exhausting experience. But hey, if it's too loud then you're too old! Right?
9. "Love" -- I was really hoping for a break from the last song's racket but this is more of the same, except with handclaps. Billy's not as angry this time but all the instruments are mixed into a horrible clusterfuck a la Gravity Kills/Stabbing Westward. They got this sound right on "Pug" a few years later, but was it too late? Anyway, they probably could have left this song on the shelves and released a great single-length LP (I'm hardly the first person to have considered this). And then people hearing these new b-sides would say, "If that's what they cut out, what they left in must be pure gold!"
10. "Cupid de Locke" -- Now this is what I was hoping for, a gentle return to their shoegaze-y roots. Something about this still isn't right. Why do they have to record the bass so loud? Arrrg! Maybe there's a few alternate versions in the archives just waiting to see the light, I know the real fans have been clamoring for them for years.
11. "Galapogos" -- This is really lovely. Or at least I thought so when I first started to write this entry a few weeks ago. I don't remember what it sounds like now. What I do know is that after Mellon Collie was released, Dave Pajo was on the other side of town helping to put the finishing touches on a Tortoise track of the same name, but secretly longing to finally rock out in ways his bandmates would never allow. Maybe he heard this album and knew he'd found his calling at last? Six years later, he'd finally get his wish. But wishes are a funny thing. Sometimes you get what you asked for, but it's never quite what you expect!
12. "Muzzle" -- The single that everyone forgets about, but the secret weapon of side one? They probably could have wrapped up the album after this, but wait, there's more than an hour's worth of music to come! Corgan's lyrics never got more personal than this, so if you loved Blinking With Fists then this song is definitely worth another look, especially if you want to know the real B.C.
13. "Porcelina of the Vast Oceans" -- I love the creamy intro of this song, which got my hopes up that it might be all-instrumental. No such luck, but it's not a total loss. I wanted to write about how great it was of Billy to write a tribute to Selena, slain by one of her fans during MC&tIS's recording sessions in the spring of 1995. A quick Google search reveals I'm not the only person to point this out, turning my clever discovery into a running joke.
14. "Take Me Down" -- I used to hear "Be Strong Now" every day when I worked at Kohl's in high school. This was always one the highlight of my day, after which it was all downhill as I swept floors, collected used plastic hangers from registers, and carted out boxes of unassembled particleboard furniture to customers. So, yeah. I'm a big James Iha fan. A nice come down to the end of side one. Here's where I hope for even more Iha songs on side two, all the while knowing that's less likely than a Corgan duet with Stephen Malkmus.
15. "Where Boys Fear to Tread" -- Another instrumental song might get disc two off to a good start, and for the first minute it sounds like that's what we're gonna get. But like Prince Herbert, Billy just can't help himself.
16. "Bodies" –- Whoa, who put a Deftones song on here?
17. "Thirty-Three" –- Not a big fan of this song. What else is there to say, really?
18. "In the Arms of Sleep" -– Woah, who put a Calexico song on here?
19. "1979" -– I have a copy of the single for this in my closet. It belonged to my brother and was one of the only CDs he owned in the '90s that wasn't a bass CD, film soundtrack or some kind of Cash Money / No Limit gangsta rap album. I stole his Westside Connections CD and sold it for cash at the used store in 1998. I later found this in our parents' basement before they moved. I pinched from his collection from years at my own discretion but this was in retaliation for the years of unpunished thievery he committed against me as we grew up. Following our grandmother's death, I took the last pack of cigarettes from her purse, intending to one day ceremonially smoke them as a tribute to her legacy. I kept them in my desk drawer for a matter of mere days before they went missing, surely wasted on him and his white trash friends as they listened to Master P or The Offspring in the back of someone's car. But therein lies the irony: "1979" was an homage to teenage hedonism, so idyllically portrayed in the iconic video, and who else lived that life more naturally and completely than my brother? Once again, it looks like the joke's on me. Shit!
20. "Tales of a Scorched Earth" –- This is just awful. Really losing my will to review the rest of this album. Are there people who listen to this all the way through? Here's where I usually get off, and I think that's what I'm gonna do now.
"Through the Eyes of Ruby" is nice enough, and I'm a sucker for album-closing lullabies like "Farewell and Goodnight," but otherwise... what else can you say about this album? Wait for the 15th anniversary reissue next year and the critical reassessment of its place in the canon, sure to be a fiery discussion if there ever was one.
Rating: It's 1995 (the girls are just friends).
Download: "Myxomatosis" (live)