My wife recently surprised me with tickets to the Smashing Pumpkins reunion tour, and as such I’ve naturally been compelled to revisit their catalog. For the longest time I’ve proclaimed that the band’s 1993 breakthrough Siamese Dream was my favorite Pumpkins album, but right now I’m thinking it might actually be Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
I bought Mellon Collie the week it came out and was absolutely obsessed with it for the remainder of 1995 and pretty much all of 1996. There was just something about it that struck a chord with me; a tall, awkward, goofy-looking sixteen-year-old kid who felt more like a fucking space alien most of the time. Pretty much all my friends had started dating by then, but I remained completely, utterly, painfully invisible to girls for the duration of my high school experience; that meant obsessing over music while all my friends were obsessing over said girls who either didn’t know I existed or didn’t care or both, and that in turn meant a lot of time spent alone in my room getting lost in Mellon Collie‘s mammoth two hour, one minute and thirty-nine second run-time, absorbing every note and nuance.
In the space of the those two plus hours, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness ran through all of the emotions I was feeling as a teenager; joy, anger, sadness, confusion and everything in-between. It may have sold a few million copies, but laying there in my room, listening to it in complete solitude, sinking deeper and deeper into my shitty twin bed, it felt like it had been written just for me, a musical refuge from the isolation and depression that was always clawing at the back of my mind, threatening to take over no matter how many friends I had and regardless of the good times I often had to go with them.
But being an emotional fuck-up of monumental proportions was not the only thing that drew me to the album. Much of it had to do with the fact that the songwriting quality was off the charts. As far as I’m concerned, lead single “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” was and still is a perfect song with it’s now legendary refrain “despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage.” Actually, the album is rife similarly spectacular ear-worms and arguably represents the peak of guitarist/vocalist/mastermind Billy Corgan’s career as one of the finest rock songwriters of his generation.
Indeed, Corgan’s idiosyncratic approach to playing, writing and arranging allowed him to craft songs that were majestic yet introspective, heavy yet vulnerable; this was evident with the Pumpkins’ earlier works, but Mellon Collie took it to a whole other level. Though I tended to gravitate towards the heavier songs such as the aforementioned “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” “Zero” “Jellybelly” and “X.Y.U.” the album’s softer moments, such as “Tonight, Tonight” and “Thirty-Three” served to further drive home the fact that music didn’t always have to be angry and pummeling in order to evoke a response within me.
Is it a bloated album? Probably. Could it be shaved down to a single disc? I suppose so. But I’m not sure it would’ve had such a profound effect on me had it been any less grandiose. It’s a wonderful thing to lay down, close your eyes and be taken on such a lengthy, tumultuous and wildly varied musical journey. It may be bloated and perhaps even bordering on pretentious, but it’s also beautiful and inspiring and a pure joy to listen to, one that still holds up over two decades later (christ, I’m old).
Many have said that Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is my generation’s equivalent of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and far be it from me to argue with them. It’s a powerful and ambitious statement from one of the best bands to come out of mainstream rock music’s last golden age. And all these years later I’m still pretty sure it was written just for me.