When Smashing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan boasted that he would follow the triple-platinum Siamese Dream with a sprawling double album that would be The Wall for Generation X, the assumption was that he would make a concept album like Roger Waters’ rock opera about the lack of communication and love in modern society. But the 28 songs on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness aren’t linked by a libretto. They’re only connected conceptually through the broad theme of being part of a day in the life of a typical, alienated teen. (The two discs are designated as “Dawn to Dusk” and “Twilight to Starlight,” and the time frames in the songs roughly correspond to the passing of the day.) Maybe Corgan meant that he wanted Mellon Collie to be a lush, diverse soundscape that would be as state of the art for 1995 as Pink Floyd’s album was for 1979. Or maybe he wanted to make an album that teenage fans could obsess over, getting comfortably numb listening on headphones in their bedrooms. If so, he succeeded on both counts.
Although Mellon Collie clocks in at more than two hours, it’s one of the rare epic rock releases whose bulk is justified in the grooves (it certainly beats the comparable length of, say, the Use Your Illusion records by Guns n’ Roses, which were marketed as two separate LPs). The accomplishment is even more impressive when you consider that Corgan single-handedly wrote 26 of the songs, and he co-produced the album with Flood (U2, Depeche Mode) and Alan Moulder (My Bloody Valentine, Ride and Nine Inch Nails). Corgan’s role as the Great Pumpkin is undeniable, but Mellon Collie at least feels more like a band effort than its predecessor. Even as it incorporates such baroque textures as harp, strings and grand piano, the album retains the rough edge and intimate vibe of old friends (and sometimes enemies) playing together in their rehearsal space.
Corgan and James Iha stretch out on several fiery guitar workouts, covering the gamut from Tom Scholz-style studio perfection to Sonic Youth noise-rock squawk. The Pumpkins deftly swing from unapologetic art rock (the nine minute-plus “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans”) to pop metal in the Boston or Journey vein (“Tonight, Tonight”), from techno-indus-trial lullabies (“Beautiful”) to twisted cow punk (“We Only Come Out at Night”). Brimming with hooks, the songs quickly work their way into your subconscious, making the album seem a lot shorter than it is. The problem, at least for rock fans who want substantive content with their seductive form, is Corgan’s lyrics.
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Corgan is a romantic who believes in the redemptive power of love, but he’s also a cynic, having been constantly disappointed by those he loves. “Believe, believe in me, believe/That life can change, that you’re not stuck in vain,” he sings on “Tonight”. ‘Tonight,the swelling ballad that follows the album’s opening instrumental. But for much of the rest of the album, he’s stuck in a lyrical rut, wallowing in his own misery and grousing about everyone and everything not meeting his expectations. “Intoxicated with the madness, I’m in love with my sadness,” he sings on “Zero” just after the song breaks down into a chant of “Emptiness is loneliness, and loneliness is cleanliness/And cleanliness is godliness, and God is empty just like me.”
One could argue that Corgan’s lyrics aren’t intended to be analyzed under the microscope, that — like those of Depeche Mode or My Bloody Valentine — they’re simply intended to conjure a mood along with the music But the vocals are much too prominent in the mix to accept that. Musically, Mellon Collie solidifies Corgan’s position as one of his generation’s most ambitious songwriters — no one else in the alternative-rock stratum has attempted an album of such length, let alone scope, and it may even match The Wall. But his lyrics don’t fare nearly as well in comparison. It may be too much to ask that Corgan be as poetic as Kurt Cobain or as earnest as Eddie Vedder; though Corgan’s therapeutic self-examinations could probe at least as deeply as Trent Reznor’s. While Waters’ tale of the rock star Pink only reached the literary level of a comic book, “We don’t need no education/We don’t need no thought control” seems deeper, more universal and more entertaining — heck, a lot more inspiring — than “Living makes me sick/So sick I wish I’d die.”