It’s hard to believe that The Smashing Pumpkins’ famous double LP Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness turned 20 years old this year. As one of my all time favorite albums, it truly doesn’t seem real that I’ve been listening to this album for two decades. There were hundreds of important albums from that decade, that shaped the way we listened to music, but by the time the mid/late 90s came around, everyone knew that a new change was imminent. Grunge was over and some of the biggest bands in the rock genre were taking breaks, changing their core sound, or disbanding all together. A change was in the air. The artists knew it, the listeners knew it, the industry knew it. It was time to let ambition to take center stage and usher in music that was bigger and more thought provoking than throw-away bands meant to emulate the sounds of Seattle.
I had just turned 13 years old and like most kids my age or listeners of alternative rock radio, Bullet With Butterfly was the angst ridden rock anthem that has pumped as to what was in store for us when the long awaited 3rd album from Corgan and co. Not only was the lead in single a departure from the stadium rock The Smashing Pumpkins were selling a few years before like Today, or Cherub Rock, but this new release was going to be a double album, something that had been unheard of in the world of alternative rock, much less from a band who had been written off countless times in the wake of other bands who dominated the genre like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. It was ambitious and it was risky but it instantly grabbed everyone’s attention.
Not many of us were expecting the opening track to the album to be a bittersweet piano composition but with the follow up track, the live orchestra driven Tonight Tonight, everyone knew it was going to be different. Of course the band had dabbled in quieter arrangements in the past, most notably 1994’s Disarm and it’s respective B-side, the Fleetwood Mac cover Landslide, but most listeners didn’t believe in a million years that the band had it in them to create tracks that feature lush instrumentation and actually make it work.
In some ways, the songs on this album foreshadowed the rest of the band’s career in buffet fashion. Love hinted at much more industrial sound they would adapt a few later on their 1998 follow up Adore. Songs like X.Y.U. and An Ode To No One were some of the heaviest songs the band had ever recorded up to that point, and certainly could rival the heavier output they would incorporate on their 2007 album Zeitgeist. Even the single Zero could be considered metal by pop music standards and far more darker than the likes of Metallica or Megadeth were doing at the time. Experimentation aside, there was still plenty of songs like Muzzle and Jellybelly that solidified the band in it’s power-pop roots. The 2nd single from the album 1979 broke the Billboard Top 40, crossing them over into the pop world and being the band’s highest charting single in the United States.
Experimentation aside, the real appeal of this album is the articulate expression of youth. The band insists that there is no theme that tie the songs together in some sort of cinematic way like other famous double albums have done in the past like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, but lyrically it’s obvious to see that the main focus is how we perceive youth and how youth perceives themselves. One minute lyrics are dire and moody, complaining that love will tear you apart, and in the next song, it’s singing the praises of affection and how it’s the only thing important in life. One song will be about how beautiful life is and in the next, it’s the impending doom of loss and heartache. It’s not the band lacking in any consistency, it’s just how unpredictable life is when you are growing up. Even the song Here Is No Why (my personal favorite song on the album) is told through the eyes of a rock star who is bored with fame, and longs for a time where he can be a lonely teenager.
The magic of these songs is how they age. When I was a kid listening, I felt that Billy Corgan was singing my very thoughts on the awkwardness of youth and the uncertainty of growing up become some sort of an adult. But now, 20 years later, the songs take on a whole new meaning as it’s like Billy is singing my thoughts on looking back to a time when I was a naive kid, where the biggest worry I had was being misunderstood. There is not many songs I grew up listening to that have sort of backwards compatibility. In many ways this was an album that was made to be enjoyed as a kid and enjoyed later as an adult. I’m not entirely sure if that was the band or producer’s intent but that’s the way it has evolved over the years. It’s a personal album that gradually changes over the years, growing with the listener in a very organic manner.
As it stands today, it was the only album from The Smashing Pumpkins’ original line-up functioning as a band. During the recording process, they worked with two producers, Flood and Alan Moulder, employing seperate studios in the same building so they could be constantly working on the album. Moulder insisted the band work together in jam sessions during the process as to capture the energy the band had during their live shows, instead of Billy tracking the guitar and bass parts himself as he did on their previous record. In fact, the direction they were given during rehearsals was ‘create this album as if it is the band’s final release’. That band energy is what makes this album standout among the rest of their catalog as a band effort. Being 28 tracks deep, one would think that the album would come off as self-indulgent but oddly enough, it plays off without any filler. Despite not having connecting tissue, tethering the songs together, the album doesn’t feel like a chore to get through. It’s more like a journey of self-proclamation and self-discovery. It’s filled with sadness, distress, hope and beauty. In my opinion it’s one of the most important mainstream releases of the 90s and one of the greatest albums to come out of the genre that changed all too soon, not too longer after. Happy Birthday Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, here’s to 20 more years and beyond.
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