In the world that Billy Corgan inhabits, perception is everything.
When the Smashing Pumpkins tour these days, they’re still billed as “The Smashing Pumpkins”, despite the fact that Corgan is the only remaining original member, often playing whole sets of new post-Iha material before delving into the group’s extensive back catalog (the divisive nature of these shows was captured rather well in their 2008 documentary If All Goes Wrong), all proving the point that despite the collaborative nature of the band in the early days, the Pumpkins is, are, and always have been the brainchild of Corgan. The only reason Corgan released this year’s quite-pleasing Oceania was because he noted how people weren’t paying all that much attention to his ongoing Teargarden By Kaleidyscope project (which, it should be noted, is where the best Pumpkins 2.0 material has been housed). So the next batch of songs for it were released as an album proper — that’s how he was able to keep the narrative going that the Pumpkins are still a working, proper band, instead of indie songsmiths slowly creating a Prince-esque vault of solid material that was greatly beloved but vastly underheard. Additionally, there’s that partyline that Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness — arguably the Pumpkins’ calling card — sold 10 million copies, the only certified-Diamond entry in the band’s catalog (and the arguable pinnacle of the alternative rock surge that so dominated the mid-’90s). Although when you break it down, it actually only sold 5 million copies, as the RIAA counted one sale of a double-disc set such as this as two units, something that doesn’t diminish the album’s impressive totals in the least but only goes to show again that in the vast, expansive world of the Pumpkins’, perception is everything.
For an egoist such as Corgan, it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s as protective as he is with his work, as — much like fellow megalomaniac Prince — he is continually forward-looking, rarely glimpsing upon the past because the future is so much brighter. Yet, as Prince eventually learned (or didn’t learn, depending on who you talk to), there’s a vast difference between collaborators and hired hands, which is why the Revolution will forever trump the New Power Generation and why the Corgan/Iha/Wretzky/Chamberlin-era lineup will always top whoever-the-hell is in Corgan’s touring band now, solid as they are.
Where Prince and Corgan differ, however, is in how they treat the past. Prince never wants to talk about it (when SPIN offered Prince an apparently large sum of cash to talk about the 25th anniversary of Purple Rain, he kindly rebuffed their offer), while Corgan, at least, is OK with giving his albums the proper re-releases that they deserve. EMI’s reissue campaign, so far, has been surprisingly thorough, not only touching on Gish and Siamese Dream but also on the B-sides/rarities comp Pisces Iscariot, which was given its own lavish disc of bonus material (which in itself was rather bold, as when was the last time that a rarities comp was treated with the same care as an album in a band’s regular discography?). Yet with the re-release of Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness, Corgan has pulled out all the stops. The iconic double album comes with no less than three whole discs of rarities and unheard bits, and perhaps what’s most astonishing is the fact that there is very little fat to be found here. It’s all fascinating, and, best of all, it enhances the album’s myth and legacy, which is exactly what Corgan intended this to do.
In many ways, Mellon Collie was Corgan’s own Purple Rain, a myth-establishing blockbuster that launched him into the mainstream by pushing his sound into new, fantastic directions. It was certainly a risk, as Siamese Dream had enough rock edge to get radio play right next to Nirvana, and by moving into artier, more pop-oriented territory, the band risked losing their audience altogether. Yet the sheer quality of Mellon‘s singles was so good that the group instead broke through to a wider audience than they ever had before. “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” was as perfect an opening salvo as one could imagine, as it let their rock fans know that they were just as cathartically-angsty as ever, and perfectly set up the pop crossover that was “1979”, soon leading to sold-out stadium tours, a host of Grammy nominations, and a cemented status as one of the ’90s most definitive rock bands.
Yet as much as Corgan and the most hardcore of Pumpkins disciples fetishize over every aspect of Mellon‘s gaudy ambitions, there are still notable flaws to the album that are just as apparent now as they where when it came out in 1995. As sprawling and ambitious as Mellon is (and make no mistake, it gets high marks for its glorious overreach), it doesn’t quite have the level of craftsmanship to escape the inevitable criticism that greets every great double-album in history. With a bit of editing, it would’ve been one spectacularly flawless single disc.
Of the two discs — Dawn to Dusk and Twilight to Starlight — the first one is by far the more consistent of the two. Opening with the sweet title track, things soon launch into the maximalist dream rock of “Tonight, Tonight”, one of the band’s finest moments, and then launches into a solid tear of guitar rock in all sorts of flavors: the thundering “Jellybelly”, the goth anthem “Zero”, the sturdy “Here is No Why”, and the alternative tentpole “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”. What’s best about this stretch is that in the hands of a lesser band, things would sound very static and blur together, creating a distorted, sonic sludge of nothing more than angst and amp fuzz. With the Pumpkins, however, the pacing is deliberate, thoughtful. “Jellybelly” occupies a different textural plane than “Zero”, and “Here is No Why” is yet another downshift in tempo, but each song is built on such sturdy sonic foundations that the transitions from track to track are natural, graceful even. By the time the band gets to “To Forgive”, the band has earned such a drastic come-down, and it works beautifully. Dawn is littered with numerous could’ve-been singles like the psychedelic bruiser “Love” and the skyscraping rallying cry “Muzzle” (which was quietly released as a promo single but could’ve had a much greater impact than the snoozy final radio offering from the album “Thirty-Three”), leaving very little material feeling out of place.
With such great attention to detail and pacing on Mellon‘s first slice, it’s a bit of a let down to slog through Twilight, the much weirder, far more contemplative companion to Dawn. Opening rocker “Where Boys Fear to Tread” feels like a retread of Dawn‘s opening six-string salvo, and the overabundance of ballads tends to wear the listener down after awhile, even with some of them being topping the more beautifully introverted moments in Dawn. “1979” still remains one of the band’s towering achievements — a glorious piece of introverted pop that was so breezy and accessible it even had a small appearance on Billboard’s dance charts — but it’s surrounded by lesser numbers like the plodding singalong “We Only Come Out at Night” and the campfire-ready “Lily (My One and Only)”, songs that begin to show Corgan’s limits as a songwriter (try as he might, whimsical is a hard pose for him to hold). Whereas Dawn feels thoughtful and considered, Twilight feels a bit ramshackle and very precious, a delicate creation that must be handled with care. At times, this sweeter half works wonders (the one-two closing knockout of “By Starlight” and “Farewell and Goodnight” shows the band at their most vulnerable and — most importantly — their most unified, their traded vocals coming off as extremely sweet and very heartfelt), but all in all, Mellon‘s second (and arguably more daring) half pays less dividends than what preceded it.
So what awaits fans and collectors in this much-anticipated re-release of such a Macy’s Day Parade-sized pillar of mainstream art-rock? An astonishing three full discs of material, 64 tracks in all, and through it, we hear the mistakes, the experiments, the trials, and the rarities that many people have been wanting to hear, nearly all of it fascinating, with very little left to chance.
While some fans may bemoan the lack of B-sides packed onto here (as much of those were on the Aeroplane Flies High set — even though that title track does make an appearance here) as well as the lack of material from the heavily-bootlegged Mashed Potatoes set, the amount of unreleased material is truly astonishing. Early demos of songs feature so many variations and interesting facets that it’s hard to know where to begin. There’s an early version of “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” on an acoustic where Corgan sings the entire thing in a falsetto, an unfortunate mix of “Zero” with washed synths played along during the chorus, a raw live-drum take on “1979” known as the “Sadlands Demo” (virtually every song on Mellon has an earlier Sadlands counterpart), and a dreamier, beat-backed instrumental of “Galapagos”. Some of the material features only minimal revelations (the “Pumpkinland Demo” of “Here is No Why” exhibits little more than a slightly slower tempo than the album version), and some of it is outright disposable (as iconic as the “Pistachio Melody” was to some Pumpkins fans, the 43 seconds of that song’s “Reversed Extras” are assuredly not worth your time), but overall, the material is quite excellent.
After you slog through the few truly disposable extras, the rest just feels like Christmas morning: there’s the “Sunshine Superman”-aping 2012 mix of “Isolation”, a moody early piano take on “Eye”, an early, brassy piano take on “My Blue Heaven” that’s different than the B-side version featured on the “Thirty-Three” maxi-single, a sharp new mix of “1979” B-side “Cherry” (although BT could’ve turned down the synths a bit on that), a “Barbershop Version” of “Jupiter’s Lament”, the excellent Sadlands demo of “Glamey Glamay” (which could’ve held its own nicely on either one of the Machina albums), and, perhaps most wonderfully of all, two different mixes of “Tonight, Tonight” — one with the strings by themselves, one being the original band backing track without the strings. What’s perhaps most surprising about this simple separation of elements into separate tracks is that both versions work spectacularly well. The “Strings Alone” mix highlights just how well considered the original arrangement was as played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (never slowing down, keeping the song on ample dramatic standing), while the “No Strings” band mix shows just how thrilling the song is by itself, that rhythm guitar positively driving the verses home without ever missing a thematic beat. All in all, these three discs are fascinating for audiophiles, worthwhile for fans, and absolute manna from heaven for collectors.
Thus, this massive re-release of what is arguably the Pumpkins’ crowning achievement lives up to the lofty heights set up by the original album: it’s sprawling, ambitious, overlong, frustrating, and fascinating all at once. Yes, as entertaining and era-defining as Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness is thought to be, it still suffers from the same minor problems that have plagued it since its release (backstory-filling rarities be damned), but as we are all well aware in regards to the history of the Pumpkins, perception is everything.