A damnable question, this. (The) Smashing Pumpkins were one of the finest bands of the 90s. Imagination, lyrical brilliance, musical invention and the sheer arsehole-opulence of Billy Corgan made them an enthralling listen, and their major albums, between 1991 and 2000, are all joyous members of my collection. Most people are in agreement that 1998's Adore and 2000's Machina are inferior albums, leaving three albums in contention.
1991's Gish was their debut record, and set the standard for what was to come on their second album - 1993's Siamese Dream. This was a colossal album - huge distorted guitar and bruising drums (Jimmy Chamberlain's biceps are bigger than his head) created a wall of sound that mingled and roared its way through lengthy, clever songs such as 'Cherub Rock', 'Geek USA' and 'Silverfuck'. It had moments of relative peace and reflection - 'Disarm' does to the aggression of the album just what you'd expect it to - but overall the impact of the album is heavy and harsh. Corgan's voice drills into your head, purring and yelping like a mad cat lyrics that are hard to define but somehow very beautiful to hear. It's a bloody good album. It's also usually the critic's choice (Metacritic awards it 96/100). However, I'm here today to discuss the merits of its gargantuan, vastly overblown successor - Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
After the success of Siamese Dream (Grammy nominations and 4,000,000 copies sold in the US) Corgan set out to create an album that would probably be their last, and one inspired by The Beatles' White Album. It was to be a double album, using much of the material garnered from the Siamese Dream sessions. However, the eventual result sounded very different. Mellon Collie shows a band that has carved a very different niche. Whereas Siamese Dream could conceivably be compared to Nirvana's Nevermind or even Pearl Jam's Ten (if you squint), this is certainly not the case for its follow up. Mellon Collie has a fuzzy, far-away quality to its production. It sounds super-polished, but also slightly alien (undoubtedly aided by Corgan's weird voice). It's guitars are seemingly over-dubbed hundreds of times, and everything is tuned down a half step, creating a lower, deeper quality to the guitar and bass. The length of the album (just over two hours) means that there is plenty of variety - piano gets a good airing, as does an orchestra, synths and even the noise of a bazooka from Doom adds punch to Bodies. Tracks such as '33' and 'In the Arms of Sleep' are incredibly poignant and moving songs led by slow acoustic guitar, piano and electronic effects. The iconic '1979' is focused around a drum-loop and synths, all leading to one of the finest middle-8s in rock history. But the core of the album is still heavy, with tracks like 'Where Boys Fear to Tread', 'X.Y.U' and 'Zero' some of the most brutal to date, but still built on the fuzzy, murky guitar that is the trademark of the album.
Emotionally, Mellon Collie hits hard. Of course all albums have a different impact on different people, but there is something about the loneliness and isolation that Corgan writes about, married to the incredible sense of hope that sneaks in, both lyrically and musically, that grabs me every time I listen, even now. 'Muzzle' is the emotional high point of disc one (the pink one), where forbidden love appears to have led Corgan to ponder how 'all things surely have to end', but yet conclude with 'I am meant for this world'. It's a wonderful counterpoint to the grim, sometimes detached lyrics of Siamese Dream and one that, thanks to my sentimentality, means that Mellon Collie will always win.
Thanks to @Lauraa_alemany for the inspiration for this post!