During the reign of alternative rock in the 1990s, Chicago’s Smashing Pumpkins were anomalous in their embrace of melodrama and grandiose ambition. While hipper contemporaries were recording their slacker manifestos with Steve Albini or onto a cassette tape, the Pumpkins would layer armies of guitar tracks onto a single song and release albums that neared the upper limit of what could fit onto a CD’s runtime. Having grown up on widescreen classic rock staples like Pink Floyd and Queen, Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan was predisposed to framing his canny songcraft and cathartic lyrics in outsized statements, which ensured that concept albums, titles like “Behold! The Night-Mare”, and tracks that regularly extended beyond the three-minute single format would be well-trod territory over the ensemble’s two-decade career.
Corgan is at it again with his 44-track Teargarden by Kaleidyscope song cycle project (it says a lot about a group’s character when concepts like “44-track song cycle project” seem par for the course). So far, the centerpiece of that undertaking is Oceania, the Pumpkins’ forthcoming album and its first since its comeback LP Zeitgeist way back in 2007. In anticipation of the release of the Pumpkins’ latest opus on June 19, Sound Affects honors the group’s outsized tendencies by counting down its top songs that exceed the six-minute mark. By their nature, such brazen exercises constantly risk turning out as muse-stroking pretension. Yeah, when Corgan overreaches himself—consider the boring “Glass and the Ghost Children” (9:56) and the godawful “United States (9:52)—the music becomes a ponderous, unending slog. But when he nails it as he does on these offerings, he goes quite a ways towards reminding listeners that few other rockers in the last 20 years possessed of such bombastic and unapologetic creative visions have shifted as many millions of records to the introspective bedroom dreamers of the world as the Pumpkins have.
(“I Am One” re-release single, 1992)
Drawing its title from Corgan’s misrememberance of a woman’s name (she was actually called “Darla”), this psychedelic daydream of a song is built around a continuously repeating ascending drone. The effect is suitably hypnotic, lulling the listener into relaxation, then elevating them to a higher state of consciousness once the drums and fuzzed-out guitars enter. Even as the track becomes more and more rocked out, the change in dynamic is so gradual and the feeling of the music so blissed-out you might barely register it.
(“Thirty-Three” single, 1996)
The Pumpkins clearly have no qualms about relegating their long-form tracks to b-side status. The antithesis to this singles’s lilting a-side, this slow-burning dirge bears a hint of post-rock strum und drang as it explodes from its deceiving complacency at key moments. Spoken word snippet captured onto a tape recorder (“I never really liked sunny days” is a classic Corganism) add a lo-fi touch to the group’s typically perfectionist production, and its warbling guitar solo seems to spiral around the monolithic groove.
(Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, 1995)
The Smashing Pumpkins’ sprawling two-disc magnum opus Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was the album where the band’s starry-eyed melodramatic tendencies transformed into full-blown fantasy. Though packed with plenty of overdriven guitars (Corgan estimated it contained 56 guitar parts tracked onto it), “Thru the Eyes of Ruby” has an otherworldly quality that wouldn’t make it out of place on the soundtrack to some elf and wizard-packed flight of fancy. Corgan wholly embraces the mythic tenor conjured here, penning lines like “We’re forever frozen / Forever beautiful / Forever lost inside ourselves” that are a realm away the confessional lyrics of “Today” and “Disarm”.
For a man who made his name writing albums full of cathartic statements, Corgan’s elegy to his late mother is relatively subdued. It’s also beautiful. Backed by mournful yet comforting piano and tearful descending guitar lines, Corgan takes his time to tenderly explore his grief, and emerges at the end at a sort of peace.
(Siamese Dream, 1993)
A vortex of Sonic Youth-style noise assault located in the final quarter of Siamese Dream, “Silverfuck” is a cut that steers dangerously close to prog-rock ponderousness. Thankfully, the studio version pulls back from the verge of outright pretension to refocus attention on the sheer wallop the band is generating (the same can’t be said for some live renditions, which can stretch well past the half-hour mark). It’s violent, overblown, and glorious in equal measure.