‘Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness’ Was The Smashing Pumpkins’ Masterpiece, But They Never Recovered From It

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 05: Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins arrives as Live Nation Celebrates National Concert Day At Their 2015 Summer Spotlight Event Presented By Hilton at Irving Plaza on May 5, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Live Nation)
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Twenty years ago Saturday, the Smashing Pumpkins released Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, widely considered to be their masterpiece. The album was a stunning, epic achievement. With nearly two hours of music, it was the rare double album that didn’t feel the least bit bloated. All 28 tracks justified their existence, and every track that ran for more than seven minutes justified its running time. Usually, a double album tends to be nothing more than the result of musicians not wanting to self-edit their work, but this was the exception.

In a way, the problem with Mellon Collie – as it related to Billy Corgan and the Pumpkins’ future – was that it worked too well. All of Corgan’s weighty musical ideas just clicked this time. All the bombast that he loves putting into his music just made sense here, and it never seemed pretentious. This could be said for the epic strings on “Tonight, Tonight” or the nine-minute “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans.” Billy Corgan threw every idea he had at the wall, and nearly all of them stuck. So, why was this a bad thing? Because it validated Corgan’s excess too much. It told him that no, he didn’t have to tone it down, and he could make everything as long and bombastic as he possibly could, and it would work. In reality, it worked well this one time, but the returns have been diminishing ever since.

The follow-up, 1998’s Adore, was viewed as a disappointment, but time has certainly been kind to it. Still, you could already see the damage being done, as Corgan was taking the Smashing Pumpkins in directions they never should have gone in the first place. If that was a minor problem with Adore, it would be thoroughly exacerbated with 2000’s Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music. Good lord, that title alone. According to the press release, this was supposed to be a concept album about “a rock star gone mad.” If only Corgan had been able to see the irony.

Of course, none of this would prepare us for Corgan’s biggest misstep, 2005’s TheFutureEmbrace. For some reason, he gave up the killer guitars that existed throughout his career, and replaced them with a synth-heavy sound that didn’t click at all. This was by far the least of his problems, though, as on the whole, this album just didn’t make any sense. For reasons known only to him, there was a cover of The Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” that was inexplicably stylized as “toLOVEsomebody,” an exercise in needless pretension if there ever was one. The album was mercifully just 45 minutes long, but every minute of it suggested someone who either wasn’t being told “no” or wasn’t listening. That the album flopped and Corgan immediately tried to reform the Smashing Pumpkins upon its release was hardly a surprise.

In all fairness to Corgan and the remaining Pumpkins, not everything he’s made since Mellon Collie has been a disaster. Besides the many strong moments of Adore, there was also a lot to like about 2012’s Oceania. The lyrics were just as wait-what-is-he-talking-about as usual, but the trademark wall of guitars was back, and if you didn’t waste too much time trying to figure out what Corgan is getting on about, it was a pretty fun record to rock out to.

Still, it can’t help but feel like, for the past two decades, Corgan has been chasing the dragon. He made one record on which all of the ideas that would usually come across as ridiculous and pompous just all worked. He’s spent the time since then trying in vain to replicate that success, and while his output has certainly not been a complete waste, nothing he’s made has come remotely close to the majesty that is Mellon Collie. It’s a unique album, an undeniable masterpiece, and something that can never be repeated, no matter how many times Corgan tries.