People look back at their adolescence as a time when they felt more trapped, more free, wilder, moodier, etc. Whatever emotions typified your transition from childhood into adulthood, most can agree that they just felt… more. Body chemicals and neurotransmitters were still boiling down into a more functional cocktail. The intensity of being alive was so strong that the stability of adulthood can feel boring by comparison. To me, having fond nostalgia for my adolescence is like hearing survivors of the Blitz reminisce about leaving your doors unlocked. It’s only after years in therapy that I’ve acknowledged that my life before the age of 22 was ruled entirely by mental illness – whether it was my own or my family’s. My life has been getting steadily better since then, and I wouldn’t be a teenager again if you gave me two dozen puppies and a boyfriend, all expenses paid. And yet, there’s a part of me that even misses the bad times. Remembering that righteous fire in my belly as I kicked over tables is stirring enough that I almost forget that those actions were motivated by misery. Fortunately, that fire, and all that’s good about it, has been contained, and here it is.
As indicated by its title, The Smashing Pumpkins‘ magnum opus ‘Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness‘ is a deep-dive into the illiterate and unstable mindset of youth. Complaining that this album is “adolescent” is like bemoaning the lack of Shakespearean verse in Stand By Me. Chief Pumpkin, and Voldemort doppelganger Billy Corgan was now in his mid-20s, and wanted to take one last look in his rear-view mirror before embracing adulthood. The result was, in his own words, “The Wall for generation X”. A sprawling 2-hour behemoth in which childlike whimsy tessellated beautifully with whip-crack angst. After a bare-bones piano-led instrumental, we’re met with the album’s manifesto: ‘Tonight, Tonight’. Blooming orchestras, rousing toy-soldier drums and Corgan’s strident croaks and coos pulling you in closer. “Our lives are forever changed, We will never be the same, The more you change the less you feel.” This is Corgan addressing the listener like an compere at a variety show, asking you to suspend your disbelief for the duration, and to “Believe believe in me, believe believe that life can change”. Stylistically, it’s one of the least representative songs on the album, and yet without its presence – its ceremonial opening of the theatre curtains – the rest of the album wouldn’t have the same power. If anything, it frames the record in such a light that its weaknesses turn into strengths.
Essentially, this is two opposite spheres colliding – the pompous overblown album-rock of the 70’s crashing head-first into the detached punk-fed grunge of the 90’s. Somehow, ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’ takes the very best of each without compromise. The grandiose power of one era, the snarling vulnerability of the other, for two solid hours. What’s more, despite having a tightly controlled aesthetic, it has a hot-blooded fervor, a vitality. Billy Corgan has developed a reputation as a control-freak, or even a tyrant. For the Pumpkins’ previous album ‘Siamese Dream’, he secretly re-recorded all the bass and guitar parts himself. When guitarist James Iha and bassist D’arcy Wretsky listened to the record, only to realise they weren’t on it, they were furious. As a result of this intervention, ‘Mellon Collie’ is an album by a band, all playing and arranging these songs as a team and a democracy. Corgan had nothing to worry about. It’s thanks to this freewheeling approach that these songs sound so vivid. There’s an indefinable energy and zeal that radiates from the band playing together – a momentum that makes even the heaviest songs soar instead of trudge.
Some of the mightiest temper tantrums ever recorded are right here. The mingled sexual frustration, confusion, bloodlust, affection and disappointment burns white hot through songs like ‘XYU’, ‘Zero’, and ‘Bodies’. Nonetheless, these work even better when they share the same space as the warm nostalgic swoon of ‘1979’, the cartoon fairy-tale of ‘Cupid De Locke’, the gleefully daft ‘We Only Come Out at Night’, and the gently unsettling ‘Stumbleine’. It’s a pendular mood-swing of a record. Lyrically, there are a lot of lines here that might be considered embarrassing and immature in isolation: “Love is suicide”, “the world is a vampire”, “God is empty just like me”. However, phrases like this have a hotline to a more primal state of being, a near-animalistic teenage fury. Plus, the sheer conviction behind Billy Corgan’s voice is undeniable. Like Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson, there’s a tainted child-like innocence to his character which will never stop being compelling. From his intense and abusive upbringing, to his aggressive feuds with other musicians, to his belief in “shape-shifters”, his mind is not “normal”, for better and for worse.
This record was supposed to be a final cataloging of volatile childhood emotions, but the result carries more weight than that. That instability isn’t gone for good. We don’t become new and fresh when the hormones settle. We bring pieces of our adolescence with us, and some parts of our psyche may never “grow up” at all. This can be bad, and it can be good. If our minds are kept under total control all the time, there is no room for joy, no room for grief and no room for progress. ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’ is many things, but no juror or journalist in the world could accuse it of being “jaded”. In this respect, there are many people living and working today who will never be quite as alive as this music is.