Smashing Pumpkins' 'Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness' at 20: 10 Most Melancholy Moments
It was too good a phrase not to use. Billy Corgan knew it in 1991, when the title Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness popped into his head during a walk through then-decrepit Coney Island. The words promise a heartbreaking, fantastical journey -- 20,000 leagues into one person’s sea of hurt -- and that’s precisely what the Smashing Pumpkins leader set out to create with his band’s third album.
Released 20 years ago (Oct. 24, 1995), the double LP is damn near infinite, what with its 28-track, 1:21:39 runtime, but the funny thing is, it’s not that melancholy. As much as Mellon Collie established Corgan as the premiere whiny bastard of the alt-rock era, the album is more hopeful -- with intermittent moments of rage -- than it is pensively sad. After a piano intro, the fanciful, string-laden “Tonight, Tonight” sets up a collection of tunes that aren’t united so much by a storyline, but by Corgan’s confusion, anger, defiance and optimism.
Searching for melancholy moments like the ones highlighted below means skipping the furious singles “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” and “Zero,” the vengeful ripper “F--k You (An Ode to No One),” the shimmery delight “Cupid De Locke,” the roaring self-affirmation “Muzzle,” the menacing night drive “Where Boys Fear to Tread,” the as-advertised “Beautiful” and the cheerful “We Only Come Out at Night,” a zither-powered national anthem for people who heard in Mellon Collie a blend of savagery and sedate beauty they could rally behind.
They were legion, these Pumpkins devotees, and the record reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200. It’s gone on to sell more than 10 million copies, and two decades later, it remains the commercial and creative peak for a band whose core lineup would dissolve before the follow-up, 1998’s Adore.
Below, the 10 most melancholy moments of this must-own '90s rock landmark.
“Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” (0:58 to close)
Maybe wistful is a better word than melancholy. Either way, the album’s gorgeous piano intro is like Motley Crue’s “Home Sweet Home” opening extended for 2:53 and retooled for sensitive alt-rock kids. (Little did those sensitive alt-rock kids know that Corgan actually was a massive Crue fan.)
“Jellybelly” (0:38 to 0:52)
Corgan mostly just sounds angry until the chomping hard-rock verses give way to the part, “Nowhere, we’re nowhere / we’re nowhere to see.” That blast of bittersweet melody gives this early album standout its sweet-and-sour flavor.
“Here Is No Why” (0:45 to 1:02)
Reflecting on his mixed-up, glammed-out youth, Corgan looks himself over and decides no amount of lipstick or glitter can mask the hurt. “And in your sad machines / you'll forever stay,” he sings, “desperate and displeased with whoever you are.”
“To Forgive” (1:44 to 2:12)
The sparse, morose electric guitar would’ve been plenty. Then synths seep in just as Corgan is midway through most devastating part -- “I sensed my loss / before I even learned to talk / And I remember my birthdays / Empty party afternoons won't come back” -- and it’s time for some new math: infinite sadness squared.
“Galapagos” (0:56 to 1:36)
By the end, when the music picks up, Corgan has put on a brave face and taken a kind of now-or-never stance with this failed romance he’s describing. In the first verse, as the guitar twinkle is just starting to churn, he’s still wounded, looking for rescue: “I won't deny the pain / I won't deny the change / And should I fall from grace here with you / Will you leave me too?”
“Take Me Down” (1:12 to 1:28)
The moan of a pedal steel guitar -- long a favorite instrument for country-western sad sacks -- brings a tear, even if guitarist James Iha’s sing-songy soft-rock ballad is meant as a hopeful song. Maybe Iha knew Corgan was going to sequence this sucker dead last on disc one.
“Bodies” (1:03 to 1:20)
Corgan’s first pass through the “love is suicide” bit -- a possible poster tagline should Mellon Collie ever become a major motion picture -- coincides with one of the ear-pleasing chord changes he often squeezed into pummeling tracks like this one. There’s also a processed guitar grinding in the background, adding that extra bit of anxiousness that registers on a subconscious level.
“In the Arms of Sleep” (0:13 to 1:04)
Corgan unplugs for his own version of a lonesome-troubadour song. “Peace will not come to this lonely heart,” he sings in a faint voice, like he’s huddled by the bed of the unrequited love he hopes will “suffer” the desire he feels. That’s the best case. The worst is much worse.
“1979” (0:07 to 0:14)
It takes about seven seconds for Corgan to play this tune’s signature guitar figure, an evocative riff that somehow captures all the adolescent excitement, curiosity, guilt and yes, sadness, that made this nostalgic tune such a smash single. So sweet is Corgan’s lick that Miguel inadvertently nicked it for his similarly stunning Wildheart track “leaves.” He even gave Billy a writing credit.
“Stumbleine” (0:00 to 0:35)
Over fingerpicked guitar taken from a home demo recording, Corgan uses the opening lines to introduce a drug addict with bad teeth and a young girl having an abortion before turning the mirror on himself: “And nobody nowhere understands anything / About me and all my dreams / Lost at sea.” Kids like these have no choice but to fake their way through.