With the reissue of the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, you’re going to hear a lot of nostalgic stories from people who were young and impressionable when this album first came out in 1995. So here’s mine: Middle school was a shitty time, and some of the only people who offered a temporary escape were a bunch of strangers in a rock band—this rock band. I’d never met the Smashing Pumpkins, would never see them play in their original lineup—Billy Corgan, James Iha, D’arcy Wretzky and Jimmy Chamberlin had split before I’d even attended my first concert. But sometimes I stuck my hand out of car windows like the girl in the “1979″ video. I had The Aeroplane Flies High box set. I had the silver-heart T-shirt. And the Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness double album, with the cherubic faces looking up at me from each disc, was one of my most prized possessions.
I took the music at face value at the time, reveling in the seeming sweetness of “Thirty-Three,” raging to “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” picturing the mischief of the night-roving gang in “We Only Come Out At Night” but never really understanding the album’s history. Seventeen years later, it’s being explained to me in an essay by music critic David Wild that’s in the reissued album’s packaging, which opens with “It was the best of times that came before the worst of times.” This thing looks like a coffee-table-book and is covered in celestial images, including the sad star girl on the original’s album art. It’s the right size for a couple of LPs, but inside, you’ll find six CDs, in addition to the band’s story and Corgan’s track-by-track song explanations on high-gloss paper, a lyric book (a blown-up version of the brown-paper one from the 1990s double disc) and a pink envelope containing four pieces of art and a card explaining decoupage—yes, now you can turn your old desk into that Smashing Pumpkins furniture tribute that you always wanted.
It’s a fittingly decadent presentation for an album Corgan went around saying in the 1990s was inspired by Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Mellon Collie was an epic undertaking, not only because it contained 28 songs but also because it was a hands-on project for all four players—or at least for Corgan, Wretzky and Iha. Corgan says that producers Flood, aka Mark Ellis, and Alan Moulder made the conscious decision to get Iha and Wretzky more involved in the writing and playing process than they’d been on 1993’s Siamese Dream. And you can hear the difference that their involvement makes: Wretzky’s basslines pummel through every track, and Iha ends the album’s first half with a song he sings solo, called “Take Me Down.” This is a collaborative effort, rather than the Billy Corgan Show.
Still, it’s Corgan who maps out the making of each song in the reissue’s book. He recalls coming up with the album title years before on a walk in Coney Island and dealing with difficult “classical types” during the recording of the string-heavy “Tonight, Tonight.” He admits to hiding a jab at a bandmate in the lyrics of “Zero” and that the album version of the growling “Where Boys Fear To Tread” captures the band’s first time playing it. Some of these verbose explanations don’t really explain anything at all about the song: The paragraph for “To Forgive” is a rambling praise of the “charitable act of forgiveness.” But most of them are surprisingly candid, with Corgan even acknowledging that some songs alluded to his crumbling marriage.
The reissue includes a bounty of different versions of tracks: live, demo, acoustic, instrumental. And if you are a big fan of the band—and if you invested in the reissue, that’s probably a given—this will give you hours of quality material to get lost in. But if you’re not super familiar with the band, aside from being able to identify that Corgan is that vampiric-looking bald guy, then use this reissue as an excuse to revisit—or just visit—this album.
Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness represents the climax of the Smashing Pumpkins, the moment when everything came together, and maybe that’s why the album is covered in all of that celestial stuff: This was the time when the stars and planets aligned for this band. Things would soon spiral out of control, band members would drop out, and though Corgan would carry on making music as the Smashing Pumpkins, things would never be the same (though this year’s Oceania was actually pretty good.). The foursome led itself to its own demise, but this album preserves the band at its greatest. “Destroy the mind/Destroy the body,” Corgan prophetically wails on “An Ode To No One.” “But you cannot destroy the heart.”