Billy Corgan's creative peak and the most genre-busting album of the last 10 years.
The Smashing Pumpkin's two previous albums began with drum beats to introduce the first song. "I am one" from Gish began with an vintage drum groove straight out of Mitch Mitchell's big book of rock/jazz crossovers, and announced their indie-rocking cred. To hail the more grand, ambitious Siamese Dream, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin did a little snare drum roll for the anthemic rocker Cherub Rock. Of course, studio album #3 was time for Billy to do something completely different.
Side One: Dawn To Dusk
1. Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness
It opens with a piano instrumental. Billy had learned how to play piano after Siamese Dream (which had Mike Mills from REM playing piano on the song Soma), and obviously his tinkling on French Movie Theme wasn't enough for him. So he decides to open the album, not with a harrowing rocker, but with this. Harmony lines from cellos, clarinets, and synthesisers all add to the grace of this song.
2. Tonight, Tonight
Here Billy continues to defy what was expected of him. In this song, released as the third single from the album, Billy shows his grown love for orchestral arrangements and plaintive love songs. Here, the song swings between solo fingerpicked guitar, and the orchestral strings laying melody lines over top. Of course, the lyrics deal with more traditional Corgan fare- of the dying moments in a love, the last chances in our lives. Being on this album, it is, of course, a masterpiece of songwriting.
Now we come upon the implicit rocking of a Pumpkins album. However, underneath the groaning amplifiers, there is a message here- again, of lost love. But now, Corgan speaks of disgust with life, instead of mourning its loss. A more traditional Pumpkins headbanger, which could have been found on Siamese Dream.
Here the Pumpkins get heavy. Really heavy. The squealing harmonics introduce this wonderful piece of high-gain venom, where Corgan rants, howls, and spits at just about everything that pisses him off- god, culture, fashion, women, well... just about everything. And the whole time, it sounds great. Contains a solo that is so electronically treated, it proves to be almost impossible for guitarists to tab out. Most likely James Iha's work. Released as the 4th single from the album.
5. Here is no why
The guitars are still distorted, and Billy's still shoutin'. However, look a little deeper at the lyrics, and you will see Billy musing on fame, futility, "teen machines' and other such self-aware topics. Some say this is where Corgan's David Bowie influences come to the fore, and I'm inclined to agree. So far, the first side is shaping up immaculately...
6. Bullet With Butterfly Wings
Right. Now, 6 songs into the album, we have hit 3 singles. And boy, this one takes the cake. It hits grunge, rips straight through it, punches stadium rock in the face, and ascends to some sort of nihilistic mountain, never to be equalled again.
This was released as the first single off the album, which then tore a hole straight into the charts. Also worth noting that it is a high point of Corgan and Iha's twin guitar attack. Notice the howling wah-wah guitar in the back ground during the outro? Perfect blend of lead and rhythm work. All in all, probably one of the finest, if not the best, cuts on the album.
7. To Forgive
This one shows Billy's love of 80's post-punk, such as Joy Division, and Echo and the Bunnymen, in this dirge drenched in feedback from his crappy Fender Twin. And in case you didn't get he's still depressed, well, "nothing is important to me" should set you straight.
8. Fuck You (an ode to no-one)
You thought Billy was going to get all emotional on us now, didn't ya? Well, he's got some emotion for you. Pure, unadulterated rage. Alternating between barely restrained, gritted teeth- riffing, and break-neck hard rock grooves, this song simply rawks. Jimmy Chamberlin brutally rides on top of the beat, as howling feedback accompanies Corgan's furious poetry.
Make no mistakes, this is Corgan at the combined peak of rage and creative talent. Be afraid.
Okay, you thought that "To forgive" was drenched in feedback. Well, this feeds back even more, and has a flanger during the chorus. This is almost certainly the result of Corgan listening to 80's feedback-obsessed, depressed Scotsmen, The Jesus and Mary Chain. Either way, it's Billy getting in touch with his angst-laden, fuzzed-out self.
10. Cupid De Locke
And this is where people start to get confused. "Wait, is he talking like Shakespeare? Huhh?" This song expresses love as innocence- through the image of the most wuvving lil cherub of all, Cupid. It's sweet, and meant to be a light-hearted break from the lyrical heaviness, and should be treated as such.
My pick for "greatest bridge in a song. Ever." It builds with ghostly chords and strings, until we come to the bridge, where the full emotional impact of the lyrics, of a man expressing his faith in love, come to the fore. With slightly distorted guitar, of course.
And if I died right now, this fool you love somehow
Is here with you
I think that's something that we can all identify with, at one point or another in our lives. And isn't that the mark of a good song?
Ahh, Corgers. King of writing songs whose titles have nothing to do with their lyrics. Anyways, onto the song. Here, we have the band erupting into a full-blown stadium rocker. It's wave your hands in the air type stuff- the guitars are turned to 10, there's the obligatory build-up just before the final verse, Jimmy Chamberlin pounds the skins like the renegade jazz-influenced rawkin' smack addict he is, and of course, Corgan's lyrics reach new heights of pretentiousness. Which is a big thing for him.
13. Porcelina of the Vast Oceans
My, oh my. Now we're getting really full-blown art-school here. This 9.21 song opens with no less than 2 minutes, 11 seconds of the same riff being repeated, growing louder from near silence, before exploding into what may be one of the Pumpkin's greatest chorus riffs, and then, in a mess of feedback and near incomprehensible lyrics, before back into the beautiful distortion. It's also one of the album's more prog rock moments.
14. Take Me Down
Now it's time for another completely different spin on things. Not satisfied with busting apart grunge, stadium rock, prog and classical, second guitarist James Iha showcases his love for country music too. In fact, it's also a great song- full of whispered vocals, tasteful instrumentation, and a weird sense of melody that in no way sounds country, but somehow it all ties together. Much like the first side of the album, in fact. A strangely effective closer.
Side Two: Twilight to Starlight
1. Where Boys Fear To Tread
Notice the title of side two? Now we're into the night side of things. Naturally, this song provides the perfect intro for things to come. The growling metal riffs are offset with explosions from the videogame Doom, while Corgan sneers his oblique lyrics over the top of it all.
No, not that bloody "Let the bodies hit the flo'!" thing. This song, although similar to the previous track in terms of tone and speed, has the beautifully uplifting refrain of "love is suicide", which a friend of mine vehemently insists is taken from a Soundgarden song, which has the line "love's like suicide". But Corgan would kick Chris Cornell's ass any day.
And now to break up that recent spate of rawkin' goodness, here comes a pretty melody, based on acoustic guitar and piano, with an indefined percussion instrument shaking away in the background. And boy, is this melody pretty. Released as the 5th and final single.
4. In the arms of sleep
Here comes another acoustic-based song, with strange, angular guitar parts played over the top, and weird feedback-type noises coming in at times.
Another fantastic, multi-layered piece of work, this time paying homage to the New Wave bands that Corgan adores. Listen closely to this tale of teenage apathy, and notice the backing vocals from D'arcy that come in at times. The electronically treated "oooo-YAY" overdubs in the verses. Released as the second single, the video was a perennial favourite on MTV and along with Bullet with Butterfly Wings, dominated radio stations.
6. Tales of a scorched earth
Now, this is the one song on the album that I think was done pretty badly. The production is terrible. The song simply sounds ugly as hell. Could have been so much better, because the guitar riff actually sounds great... a disappointment.
7. Thru the eyes of Ruby
Remember the prog-rock Porcelina? This is like that, but so much better. At the same time, it is more expansive, yet tightly focused at the same time. The clean sections are filled with swirling, lush ambience, while the heavy sections simply kick you in the teeth. Imo, the best song that wasn't released as a single.
Just Corgers and his lonesome guitar, picking out a tale of alienation, decaying relationships, and the death of dreams. Very pretty, and gives you a few minutes of downtime before what's about to come next...
Here the Pumpkins go all-out in this frenzied rocker that manages to maintain all of it's ferocity for the full 7 minutes, and contains some moments where Corgan makes absolutely no sense, but it's so powerful and ass-kicking you just don't care.
The speeding up of the final section was a stroke of genius- Chamberlin sounds like he's playing on the edge of a cliff.
10. We only come out at night
Heh. Here's a song that comes across at first as a cute little novelty number- but once you get past the chorus, this song actually contains some well-written lyrics. A weird semi-prog type song, musically. One of the stranger songs.
Another hidden gem that is very often overlooked by people who don't listen beyond the cute lil first verse. Of course, then it progresses into a catchy guitar riff and an outro with group harmonies. Pretty.
12. Lily (my one and only)
A rather obliquely disturbing song about Lily, the subject of our singer's disturbingly stalker-like obsessive love. Mostly told from the perspective of... well, hanging in a tree watching her through her window. The melody is nice, though. Although disturbing.
13. By Starlight
Another of the more disappointing songs on the album (but hey, 26 out of 28 ain't bad, right?), mostly because it fails to pull off anything that breaks as much ground as the songs preceeding it. Of course, if they'd stuck this song onto Machina/The machines of God, it would have been a highlight, but that's a whole 'nother story.
14. Farewell and goodnight
This one features lead vocals from all four band members, which is a cute touch that is reminiscent of the Beatles' way of ending the White Album. Soothing ocean noises, and lullaby lyrics make for a pleasing end to the album. But wait? What's that? Listen to the ending piano notes. Guess which piano intro the end of the second album this ties into...
In this album, Corgan manages to leap across the boundaries of pop, prog rock, classical, classic rock, metal, grunge, and 80's alternative. A truly ground-breaking talent, and a ground-breaking album.
Important people in making this album
Billy Corgan, guitar, vocals and piano
James Iha, guitar and vocals
D'Arcy Wretzky, bass and vocals
Jimmy Chamberlin, drums and vocals
Produced by Flood, Alan Moulder, and Billy Corgan
www.spfc.org, the Smashing Pumpkins fan collaborative.
My own head and weird sense of musical analysis.