Top of the Pops: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

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October 28, 2015 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

“I’m in love with my sadness” sings Billy Corgan on “Zero”, a truism that has come to characterize both his depressed megalomania and his band’s legacy.  On the band’s third album, the obviously self-obsessedly named Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, this truism is in full force, and oddly enough cements that band’s status as one of the most important rock bands of the 1990s.  If Use Your Illusion I and II is the Physical Graffiti of the 1990s, then Mellon Collie is the 90s counterpart to Pink Floyds’ The Wall.  Lyrically, conceptually, and sonically, it’s the densest and most layered rock album since Pink Floyds’ 1979 magnum opus.  Despite being a double album and clocking in at over two hours, Mellon Collie is a masterpiece because of its excess, not despite it.

Finding the right pop-culturally infused analogy to compare Mellon Collie against is a difficult task because of the sprawling nature of the album.  But, the best way to sum up Billy Corgans’ love letter to himself is with the following—If Edgar Allen Poe tried his absolute hardest to write a children’s fairy tale you’d get Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.  From track to track, the album constantly wavers between whimsical idealism and fantasy (“Stumbleine” and “Porcelina of the Ocean Blue”) and unrestrained fury and hate (“Fuck You” and “X.Y.U.).  Like many other esteemed songwriters of the 1990s, such as Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain, Billy Corgan is plagued with more emotions than his body can handle and his mind can process.  This is why Mellon Collie feels like a lullaby straight from the 8th circle of an Alighierian inferno.  Corgan is in fact waving goodbye (however venomously so) to all the miserable (sic. most) experiences of his life.

While not a rock opera, or even a concept album by definition, Mellon Collie is conceptually tied to the notion of day and night as a proxy to encapsulate the entire spectrum of human suffering and desire within the span of a single day.  Although a seemingly impossible task, Corgan somehow navigates his entire adolescence and early adulthood to the tune of a single 24 hour span starting from the dawn’s early light and ending with the fading abyss of a blackest night.  The first disc is known as “Dawn to Dusk” while the latter disc is entitled “Twilight to Starlight”.  If the titles of each half didn’t properly convey this theme of diurnal and nocturnal divergence, then the opening and closing tracks of each disc most certainly will.

The album opens with “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” a melodiously piano driven arrangement that actually picks up where the last track on the album, “Farewell and Goodnight”, trailed off.[1]  The piano part of these two tracks conveys a wondrous sense of fantasy that permeates through the album’s 26 other tracks.  The way that the beginning and ending of Mellon Collie bleeds into one other symbolizes the indistinguishable distance between the closing of one night and the dawn of a new day.  The eponymous opener signifies the slow rise out of the darkness; it’s the beginning of the day, while “Farwell and Goodnight” represents the cascading descent of the night, as it sounds like the band is tucking the listeners in to bed and lullabying them to sleep.

Conversely, the closing track on disc one, “Take Me Down”, and the first track on disc two, “Where Boys Fear to Tread” represents the opposite: The fading embers of the day and the sharp envelopment of the night, respectively.  “Take Me Down” is a sweet and soft croon that waves goodbye to the last remnants of the sun as the night surges to overtake it.  By the time the second disc begins with “Where Boys Fear to Trend”, the night and darkness have taken over.  The mechanized stuttering of the guitar symbolizes the omnipotent crashing of the night coming to usurp the daylight.  As Billy Corgan does, at the sound of the clanking, spasmodic opening guitar cries of “Twilight to Starlight”, so too will listeners unknowingly tread further into the darkened recesses of Corgan’s misery.

Disc one proves to be the more mainstream and radio-friendly half of Mellon Collie, not so much because of its content, but because disco two is much more extreme, sonically and lyrically than its diurnal counterpart.  The first disc features more traditional ballads like “Tonight, Tonight”, a lugubriously tender number, and the dreamy “Take Me Down”.   “Dawn to Dusk” is also loaded with hard rocking tracks more in line with the bands’ back catalogue.  “Jellybelly” is arguably the best alt-rock song of the 90s and “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” has proven to be the bands’ signature song.  “Muzzle” is about as introspective as Corgan can get without bordering on self-loathe, while “Love” is so industrial sounding that it could very easily be played in an underground German sex club.  The first disc is more in line with past Pumpkins’ albums as the bands’ patented soft-hard-soft sound dynamic is in full effect and the track listing religiously adheres to alternating between rockers and ballads on every track.  More than its sister disc, “Dawn to Dusk” could very easily stand on its own as the successor to Siamese Dream.

By contrast, disc two, titled “Twilight to Starlight” is more experiment and way more bi-polar.  It can’t decide whether it wants to be affectionate and delicate, or vitriolic and volatile…so it does both.  “Beautiful”, “By Starlight”, and “Stumbleine” are all graceful kisses blown to a lover through a summer nights’ breeze.  “Beautiful”, an especially sweet ditty, also provides some of the most heartwarming moments on the album.  Rounding out the innocence on disc two is “We Only Come Out at Night”, confirming to listeners that this half of Mellon Collie was specifically crafted as a nightcap.

Opposing the fragile innocence of “Twilight to Starlight” is the bombastic hail of napalm that interrupts them.  “Bodies”, one of the best songs ever written by Corgan, is the disc two equivalent of “Jellybelly”, as Corgan complains “Love is suicide” again and again.  “Tales of a Scorched Earth” sounds like Corgan is singing through a post-apocalyptic sandstorm, while breathing fire through the speakers, and on “X.Y.U.” he goes absolutely ape-shit and completely succumbs to all the misery, aggression, and rage that he’s ever felt, and crafts it into the heaviest song the band has ever written.  There were only two songs from the second half of Mellon Collie that could have been released as singles (“Thirty-Three” and “1979”), and both of them were.  Even though “Twilight to Starlight” isn’t as radio-friendly as its older sister, it is just as good.  And when looking at double albums, having both halves stack up equally against one another is a delightful rarity.

Holistically, the songs of Mellon Collie can be grouped into three categories: 1) Those that describe the vampiric nature of the world (“Bullet with Butterfly Wings” and “Zero”, 2) Envenomed assaults directed to a specific woman (“Fuck You” and “Love”), and 3) Doting, childish professions of love directed towards (presumably) that same woman (“Beautiful” and “In the Arms of Sleep”).[2]  And yet despite this, the words “day”, “sun”, “light”, “dark/darkness” and “night” are littered throughout the 28 songs that comprise Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, thus uniting the course of the day with Corgan’s own inner turmoil.  This interlocking and interchangeable metaphor elevates the music to a work of art, which constantly reveals more layers and deeper meaning upon subsequent listens.  In that respect, Mellon Collie is a lot like Apocalypse Now where listeners glisten something new every time and each subsequent rewind is a completely different experience than the previous one.

Mellon Collie, like every single Smashing Pumpkins album, is not a happy album.  Even when Corgan write about being in love, there’s a desperate element to his lyrics that makes it seem like he’s almost too much in love.  But, when he’s not singing about love, Corgan is wailing, screeching, bellowing, howling, screaming, or babbling unintelligibly about his misery and angst.  For some reason however, it seems to work for Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins.  More than any other Smashing Pumpkins album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness feels like Billy Corgan is ripping his skin off and tearing his bones out in an attempt to bear his soul and exorcise the demons that have been plaguing him for the entirety of his adult life.  Mellon Collie is a fairy tale, make no mistake about that, but it’s a fairy tale rife with misery and (as the title implies) despair.  Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness captures the Smashing Pumpkins in their finest hour, thankfully for listeners however, it clocks in at over two hours.

***

Just for my own amusement, and to further highlight the bi-polar nature of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, I’ve made a chart listing both some of the angrier and more vitriolic lyrics, and the sweeter, more caring lyrics.  Both are over the top, but hey, what else would you expect from a bi-polar Chicago Cubs fan?

Mean/Sad lyrics

Happy lyrics

“Living makes me sick, so sick I wish I’d die” “It’s for the girl I’ve loved all along, can a taste of love be so wrong”
“The world is a vampire, set to drain….and what do I get for my pain” “And trumpets blew, and angels flew on the other side, and you’re all I see, and you’re all I’ll need, there’s a love that God puts in your heart”
“Lost my innocence to a no good girl” “I’ll make the effort, love can last forever”
“Time heals but I’m forever broken” “She comes to me like an angel out of time, as I play the part of a saint on my knees, there are some things I’ll live without, but I want you to know that I need you right now”
“Love is suicide” “Beautiful, you’re beautiful, as beautiful as the sun, wonderful, you’re wonderful, as wonderful as they come”
“And let me be, let me die inside…And we’re all dead yeah we’re all dead” “By starlight I’ll kiss you, and promise to be your one and only, I’ll make you feel happy,and leave you to be lost in mine”
“I’m a motherfuck” “Goodnight, my love, to every hour in every day, goodnight, always, to all thats pure that’s in your heart”

[1] Just like with The Wall.

[2] Sometimes points 2 and 3 are found in the same song

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