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Revisiting The Smashing Pumpkins' magnum opus 'Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness'

As music consumers, when we discuss the records of Chicago alternative legends The Smashing Pumpkins, it’s normally their sophomore studio record, Siamese Dream, that ends up trumping the others, and for good reason, it saw the band build on and augment the unique psychedelic, metal and shoegaze fusion that they outlined on their debut, 1991’s Gish. It featured massively influential and era-defining tracks such as ‘Cherub Rock’, ‘Today’ and ‘Mayonaise’.

However, one would argue that it is Siamese Dream‘s successor, 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness that is the band’s greatest effort. It built on the massive strides that Siamese Dream made, and sonically, thematically and lyrically (for the most part), the band reached their zenith across its whopping 120 minutes.

Although the band released the respectable Adore in 1998, this was the record where the classic lineup of The Smashing Pumpkins peaked, after it, the decline of the band started to become clear. Produced by frontman Billy Corgan alongside iconic producers Flood and Alan Moulder, the choice to go with Flood and Moulder was critical in bringing the album’s complex musicianship to life. Flood was even noted to have said that he felt that the band he saw play live was not captured on recordings.

Of the decision to forgo Butch Vig, who had produced their first two outings, Corgan said: “To be completely honest, I think it was a situation where we’d become so close to Butch that it started to work to our disadvantage… I just felt we had to force the situation, sonically, and take ourselves out of normal Pumpkin recording mode. I didn’t want to repeat past Pumpkin work.”

The album Butch Vig is most proud of producing

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After touring Siamese Dream for 13 months, Corgan immediately set about writing new material for its follow up. With the aforementioned sentiment in mind, the band knew they wanted to write a double album, partially inspired by The Beatles’ 1968 classic, ‘The White Album’. At the time, Corgan said: “With this new album, I really liked the notion that we would create a wider scope in which to put other kinds of material we were writing.”

The writing sessions would be swift, and the record was recorded between March and August 1995. The result, Corgan described to the music press as, “The Wall for Generation X”. He wasn’t too far off either. Another reason that the record was such a triumph was because of the way that Corgan and the band actively tried to dispel any tension, an aspect that had plagued the makings of their first two records. To counter idleness and the natural tension that rises whilst individual parts are being recorded, the band used two studios at the same time, so everyone was always working.

Furthermore, bassist D’arcy Wretzky and guitarist James Iha had big roles in the album’s writing and recording, which also eased band relations along. In short, this was a team effort, and it showed. After the record was released, Iha said: “The big change is that Billy is not being the big ‘I do this—I do that’. It’s much better. The band arranged a lot of songs for this record, and the song writing process was organic. The circumstances of the last record and the way that we worked was really bad.”

If we quickly note some of the classics that comprise the album, you’ll heed just how strong of a claim it makes as The Smashing Pumpkins’ magnum opus. The album opens with the incredibly moving orchestral title track before jumping into the stirring ‘Tonight, Tonight’. At other points, we have the dark and atmospheric ‘Zero’, the anthemic ‘Bullet with Butterfly Wings’, the fuzz-laden grower ‘Here Is No Why’ and the touching ballad ‘To Forgive’. To say that these songs do not even comprise half of the first side is astounding. 

Personally, I would argue that ‘Jellybelly’ is the most underrated track on the first side. Its visceral, Swervedriver-esque brilliance is nothing short of incredible, and it was a stark reminder that The Smashing Pumpkins we all loved from their early days were still here, they’d just taken it to the next level. Fast, melodic and anthemic, ‘Jellybelly’ is a whirlwind. On side two, ‘Tales Of A Scorched Earth’ also follows this same formula, it just features a pained, howling Corgan, helping to make it one of the band’s heaviest moments.

Side two carries on the genius of the first. It features the stellar classic ‘1979’, which is one of the definitive songs of the ’90s, and there can be no denying it. The song slowly builds before Corgan pounces into the chorus, “And I don’t even care to shake these zipper blues”. Then the synth line descends and we’re in heaven. It’s moments like this where the album contains a subtle textural beauty that would not have been achieved without the work of Flood and Moulder, the modern age’s masters of textured and layered recordings. A nostalgic, tear-jerking number, ‘1979’ has you in tears of joy whilst also yearning for better days. A delicious juxtaposition.

In fact, the brilliant points on the album are so manifold that this would turn into a rather large essay if we were to recount all of them. On the other hand, there isn’t really a low point on the record, save for the fact the record didn’t have to be so long. But this is Billy Corgan and he answers to no one but himself. Some of the lyrics are questionable, and again, this is Billy Corgan.

Largely a timeless classic, there’s something in this record for everyone. A journey featuring many disparate musical modes and thematic discussions, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was the true Smashing Pumpkins coming to the fore.

Listen to the album in full below.