Like many CD-era alternative-rock albums, Smashing Pumpkins’ single-disc Siamese Dream became a double album on vinyl. In an apparent attempt to outdo that hour-plus workand obviously forgetting that he once said Dream would have benefited from a bit of trimmingPumpkins mastermind Billy Corgan opted for a two-CD follow-up to his band’s breakthrough triple-platinum release. At two hours, the set would fit snugly on three LPs.
Corgan has announced that the unfortunately titled Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness will be the “last album as people know the Smashing Pumpkins” (which could mean that the Pumpkins’ shows that open the new 9:30 Club on Friday and Saturday will be D.C. fans’ last chance to see the band in its current form). If that’s so, it’s a shame, because for all the obsessive care with which it’s produced and all the panache with which it’s presented, Mellon Collie isn’t quite the triumph the Pumpkins’ leader envisioned. Neither is it a glorious failure. Any grand reaction, positive or negative, Corgan had hoped to provokebeyond the record’s all-but-ordained No. 1 chart debutisn’t warranted by his deeply OK music.
This two-hour tour of Corgan’s psyche and sonic palette is, however, a Big Production. The lavish artwork resembles that of a 19th-century children’s book (apropos for Corgan, one of ’90s rock’s most notorious Peter Pans). In the tradition of such monuments to overkill as Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, there are two booklets: One is filled with whimsical illustrations, the other with similarly stylish presentations of the lyrics.
And what lyrics. Corgan is often pinned as a whiner, and bratty blurts like “Fuck You (An Ode to No One)” don’t exactly argue against that. Self-obsession aside, howeverCorgan usually sings in the first person singular, though he does occasionally deign to explore the more inclusive pluralthere’s a lot to like about Mellon Collie, at least in the diverse textures of its dazzlingly produced (by Corgan, Flood, and Alan Moulder) surface. After the title track opens the album with a delicate Elton-style instrumental, “Tonight, Tonight” sweeps the listener up in lush string charts. As if to prove that Corgan is as angst-stricken as any other Gen Xer, he’s soon toying with buzzing, Reznoresque textures on “Fuck You” and “Love.” Then he’s doling out a Stevie Nicks homage, “Cupid de Locke” (which is kind of sweet, truth be toldhis melodiousness, like his command of the guitar overdub, is never in question).
Underneath these treatments, Corgan spends the bulk of Mellon Collie alternately exorcising and celebrating his fears and peeves. With its oblique drug reference and one F-word excised, “Stumbleine” could be a sensitive-guy “folk” song from the soundtrack of Fame: “Nobody nowhere understands anything/About me and all my dreams,” Corgan mewls. And “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” the first single, compares the world to a vampire and the singer to Jesus. Let’s hope no one gives him any books on numerology.
In the past, Corgan has managed some truly scarifying lines, notably the barely veiled reference to a post-pill-overdose stomach pumping in “Today.” Corgan rarely drops such convincing details on Mellon Collie, instead filling too many songs with subpar poesy and yelps that, damn it all, he’s just not worthy. It might be a kind of self-knowledge that Corgan shows in “Here Is No Why,” a midtempo warning of becoming “trapped inside the dream, of teen machines” that he could be singing as much to himself as to his alt-rock-star peers. But what initially sounds like the best line on the album turns out to be a mishearing: On “1979,” a remembrance of the young Corgan’s introduction to his hometown’s cool kids, he’s not singing about paying his city-slicker dues, but rather mouthing some claptrap about shaking “these zipper blues” and death tripping “with the freaks and the ghouls.” What might have been an effective subversion of clichés about wild, cruising teens ends up sounding more like an anthem for Rocky Horror acolytes. (Second guitarist James Iha proves himself an equally hamfisted lyricist with “Take Me Down,” which pines for a similar visit “to the underground.”)
Mellon Collie also isn’t helped by the fact that, while Corgan is a canny student of ’60s and ’70s wide-screen album rock, he shows no special talent for sifting through his ideas and effectively sequencing large quantities of material. He attempts coherence by labeling the discs “Dawn to Dusk” and “Twilight to Starlight,” but basically follows the same modus operandilarge-scale works dwindling down to quiet ballads and cutesy experimentson both. Some of the best stuff, particularly the justly named “Beautiful,” is tucked away near the end of Disc 2. When two tracks in close proximity, “Lily (My One and Only)” and the Edgar Winter tribute, “We Only Come Out at Night,” use the same carnival-like beat, a lazy unwillingness to think of another rhythm seems responsible.
This impression holds even when, after several plays, the economy-size expanse of music on these discs starts to come into focus. Unfortunately, attention is then drawn to less-than-stunning (and received) pronouncements like “youth is wasted on the young” (from “Thru the Eyes of Ruby”) and “I forget to forget nothing is important” (“To Forgive”). Corgan does deserve credit for being both dumb enough and smart enough to get listeners singing along with the poor-me refrain of “Bullet”: “Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.” But as worthy a radio-ready jaunt as “Bullet” is, it lacks the full-force sting of “Cherub Rock” and “Disarm,” two of Dream’s most relentlessly programmed cuts.
For all the past talk about the supposed musical ineptitude of Corgan’s confrereswhich led him to overdub much of Siamese Dream’s infrastructure himselfthere’s impressively tight band interplay on cuts like the roaring “Jellybelly.” (By the middle of the lengthy Dream tour, the outfit had gained confidence and was playing stuff from that album with an added speediness and edge.) At bottom, however, the ringleader is basically pulling his same sonic tricks at greater length. Enjoyable as they are, you’re likely to fidget two-thirds of the way into the show.
It’s not exactly fair to deem Mellon Collie an alt-rock successor to prog-rock bloatfests like Yes’ Tales of Topographic Oceans or Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Works, as Corgan indulges himself in only a few pieces over the five-minute mark. He seems to have cranked out a massive opus mainly to prove that he could, and damn the listeners who would have been content with 45 or 50 minutes of orchestral highlights. His refusal to break Mellon Collie down to a more wieldy single disc, however, blunts the power of its best music. It also begs the question of the Pumpkins’ ability to scale the heights on which Corgan has set his sights.CP