Alternative Rockers Think Big, Uneasily
Recordings View-NY TIMES-10-23-95
by Jon Pareles
There's a maelstrom inside Billy Corgan's head. In his songs on the Smashing Pumpkins' new album, "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" (Virgin), he wants to lose himself, and he wants to find himself. He seeks revenge and salvation; he craves love and solitude; he's straight, and he's hay; he longs to feel more, and he can't stand the pain.
The Smashing Pumpkins' second album, "Siamese Dream" (1993), sold more than three million copies, and the band headlined the 1994 Lollapalooza festival. Yet being a rock star hasn't eased his torment. In "Bullet With Butterfly Wings", the new album's first single, someone asks, "Can you fake it for just one more show? Corgan compares himself to "old Job," then erupts over power chords that could easily turn the song into an arena-punk anthem: "Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage!"
Corgan is not equivocal about one thing: ambition. "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" is a double album, containing 28 songs that last just over two hours. While alternative-rock is obsessed with fragmentation, "Mellon Collie" thinks big. Although Corgan has declared it's not a concept album, the two halves are labeled "Dawn to Dusk" and "Twilight to Starlight." And its songs grapple with overarching questions about love, death, trust and divinity. Over the course of the album, and sometimes within a single song, the music whipshaws between two extremes; it pummels and howls, then subsides and ponders, again and again.
With Corgan and James Iha on guitars, D'Arcy on bass and Jimmy Chamberlin on drums, the Smashing Pumpkins turn psychedelia inside-out. The music harks back to fuzz-toned Jimi Hendrix riffs, dreamy late Beatles ballads, Buffalo Springfield's folk-rock and Pink Floyd's otherworldly pleasure.
But where 1960's psychedelia promised communal journeys, Smashing Pumpkins pound and flail in inner space, adrift and alone. "Nobody nowhere understands anything about me and my dreams," Corgan moans in "Stumbleine."
Corgan's voice, nasal and nerdy, grows even more petulant as he works himself into tantrums. It's not an appealing sound. But even nerds have feelings, and Corgan ceaselessly examines his own. He takes notice of other people mostly when they persecute or frustrate him, though "Mellon Collie" does make more attempts than before to mention other characters.
Yet Corgan is convinced - and eventually convincing - that his private anguish unites him with listeners. "The steam of my misfortunes has given me the power to be afraid," he declares in "Porcelina of the Vast Oceans." "And in my mind I'm everyone"
Corgan's "everyone" is middle-class youth in their 20's, self-absorbed, aimless and thwarted: "Everybody's lost, just waiting to be found." AIDS haunts their romances; they no longer feel as if their youth will go on forever, and they're desperate to find something solid in a world of simulations and false assurances. "We'll crucify the insincere tonight," he sings in "Tonight, Tonight." "We'll make things right, we'll feel it all tonight."
Later, in "Tales of a Scorched Earth," he shrieks, "I lie to be real, and I'd die just to feel." At times in "Mellon Collie," the singer seems to compare himself to Jesus Christ, overtly in "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" ("Jesus was an only song/ Tell me I'm the chosen one") and cryptically in "Thirty-Three."
On "Siamese Dream," the producer Butch Vig piled full-blown orchestration and multilayered guitars onto the songs, giving them grandeur and a bristling drive. "Mellon Collie," produced by Flood (who has also worked with U2 and Depeche Mode), gets a more realistic, slightly more stripped-down sound; it's closer to the unvarnished songs on "Pisces Iscariot," a collection of B sides and outtakes released in 1994. But it still makes a mighty noise in the rockers. The album's length also allows Smashing Pumpkins to explore slower, quieter music, which can be bleak or precariously blissful.
There's not much padding on "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness." The album is densely packed with words and riffs, and while it flags where more double albums do - in a lull before the homestretch of the second half - only a few songs outlast their substance. It's an album of pronouncements and images; there's an occasional instrumental introduction and a handful of mid-song guitar solos, but the rest backs up Corgan's words.
The songs surge ahead on their own free-form logic; instead of following verse-chorus-verse formulas, they are strings of riffs that change at whim, gusting and crashing behind Corgan's wayward mood. He rants to the point of exhaustion, relents in despair or lets himself float in momentary fulfillment, though he can't help wondering, "Should I fall from grace here with you, would you leave me too?"
Earlier Smashing Pumpkins songs plunged into childhood traumas; Corgan, who is now 28, summoned sensations of awe and helplessness, and the first stirrings of helplessness. "Mellon Collie" inches forward on the time line; it's about reaching out to lovers, preserving memories and trying to keep the honesty of a vanishing youth. And nearly every song has a line or two of romantic manifesto: "Destroy the mind, destroy the body, but you cannot destroy the heart."
Love has long been the pop panacea, and in the end Corgan is a believer. But when he announces, "Love solves everything," in a song called "Love," the music is ominous, the tone bitter and disbelieving, as if he feels trapped. Later, after he implores, "Come into my life forever" in "Bodies," he yowls, "Love is suicide!" Attracted and terrified, alone but feeling like multitudes, he has no choice but to try it again.
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