Pumpkins' new album reflects group's infinite range
Mellon Collie and
the Infinite Sadness
Virgin Records.By Brent A. Ridley
If you have heard the first single from the new Smashing Pumpkins double CD release, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, you may have already decided that you love or hate the Pumpkins. I have been told that the single, "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," is the Pumpkins' worst song and I have been told that it is the best song of 1995.
But, love it or hate it, the single is not representative of the album. There is no one sound or style that Billy Corgan and the other Pumpkins ride through the recording, which comes at the cost of a distinctive sound but brings with it the gain of variation that a double CD set has to have to retain the listener's attention. The whisper of "Take Me Down" drops into the brutal attack of "Where Boys Fear to Tread" and then eases into the simplicity of a lullaby.
The diversity of the songwriting and arranging is the only aspect of Mellon Collie that becomes predictable, because it becomes obvious to the listener that the next song won't sound like the current one. This predictability helps to propel Mellon Collie through some of its lackluster moments.
With 28 songs and over two hours of music, there is bound to be material that the listener will deem "filler." The opening track of the first disc, a brief instrumental piece of piano and mellotron, is followed by an unspectacular orchestrated song that sounds like an unused portion of "Disarm" from the Pumpkins' last album, Siamese Dream. Even though Mellon Collie opens with two tracks that are not memorable in their own right, the songs lull the listener into a security that drops out to leave the listener with the furiously heavy guitar assault of "Jellybelly." The contrast between "Jellybelly" and its precursor, "Tonight, Tonight," arises frequently to push through the filler of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and manages to make some of the weaker material memorable.
Production for Mellon Collie was handled by Billy Corgan, Flood (U2, Nine Inch Nails) and Alan Moulder (Swervedriver, Nine Inch Nails). The excellence and appropriateness of the production is evidenced in the subtleties and layers of guitars that come out when listening to the album with headphones. "X.Y.U." has the sounds of a motorcycle accelerating through the thick mix of guitar sludge at the close of the song. In "Zero," a heavily studio-worked guitar sprawls through the two-and-a-half minute song, and in "To Forgive," swells of guitar feedback glide over the piece. Yet in the gentle "Stumbleine," Corgan's voice is left bare against a lone acoustic guitar.
The variety of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is impressive. When a song is heavy, it carries the pull of gravity; when it is soft, its breathing can be made out; and when it is pretty it is irresistibly cute. Mellon Collie shows a great range of sounds and styles, with moments that are punkier, poppier, and rockier than anything from the previous Smashing Pumpkins' releases, Gish and Siamese Dream. "Cupid de Locke" is an airy song with sweet vocal harmonies singing of "turpentine kisses," while "Tales of a Scorched Earth" moves with uncontrolled intensity and violence in Broken-era Nine Inch Nails method, complete with spitting, distorted vocals.
While the diversity helps to keep the listener's attention, which could very easily be lost over a two hour recording, Corgan's ambition for exploration and diversity does not always yield interesting songs. Sometimes Corgan explores songwriting territory that is new to him but familiar to any listener of rock music, and so the broadened scope of the work is undercut by the addition of a trite song, like "Here Is No Why." A boring song that we've heard a thousand times under another title by another band might add to the range of Melon Collie, but it adds a dullness that makes the listener question if two full discs are necessary to present the material of the recording. Both Gish and Siamese Dream were free of such material, which is the result of the variety and length of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
Fortunately, the noteworthy works that arise from the diversity outweigh the weak pieces and demand more space than one CD. This length is without many songs that emulate the epics that Corgan has written in the past (listen to the Gish-era B-side, "Starla"), which is disappointing because the longer songs of Siamese Dream show a maturity in their structures that is rarely found on Mellon Collie. While the sound of the material is more varied, the structure is not.
Still, the new Smashing Pumpkins release manages to cover a lot of ground, despite lacking the consistency of Gish and Siamese Dream. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is surely imperfect, but due to a combination of the quality of the production, the care taken in complementing songs with each other, and the ambition in undertaking a project as expansive as it is, the album is solid enough to maintain interest and enthusiasm over a two hour recording, an impressive feat.