The Smashing Pumpkins’ sophomore release, Siamese Dream, brokered the Chicago rockers’ commercial breakthrough, but also showed they’d moved well beyond the limitations imposed by grunge. However, while Siamese Dream was undeniably a pivotal record, it merely hinted at what the band would go on to achieve with their epic third album, Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness.
Simply put, Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness was Billy Corgan and company’s magnum opus. Sprawling, ambitious, and gloriously bloody-minded, its marathon two-hour running time spread over two CDs (or three discs on vinyl), and its 28 songs proffered a dizzying array of styles, from the neo-classical titular track to the gentle, opiated folk of “Thirty-Three” and the brain-flaying hardcore punk of “Tales Of A Scorched Earth.”
Unlike the lead up to Siamese Dream, wherein Corgan felt intense pressure to fashion a record that would ensure his band’s longevity, the pre-Mellon Collie… period was one of exceptional creativity for the Pumpkins. The album sessions came on the back of a highly successful 13-month tour in support of Siamese Dream, during which time their frontman began stockpiling a wealth of new material.
With the whole band chipping in ideas and a hefty batch of unrecorded songs ready to be realized, Corgan knew the group had the wherewithal to make a significant record when they entered the studio with their new co-producers Flood (Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails) and Alan Moulder (U2, Ride, The Jesus And Mary Chain).
“I wrote something like over 50 songs and we recorded this entire pile of stuff,” Corgan recalled for Rolling Stone in 2012. “Flood wanted to record Mellon Collie in [our rehearsal space] Pumpkinland in Chicago, he liked the way we played in there and thought we’d be more comfortable. [Looking back] Mellon Collie is a very dark album and the production is fairly stark in some places, but there’s something about the darkness of it all that really resonated.”
The record was indeed long on angst and intensity, with Corgan freely stating “I’m in love with my sadness” on the churning “Zero,” and the likes of “XYU,” “An Ode To No One” and the downtuned maelstrom of “Jellybelly” registering among the most ferocious rockers in the band’s canon. However, there was also plenty of light to leaven the shade, with the Pumpkins’ virtuosity and dynamism also resulting in material as diverse as the dramatic, orchestra-assisted “Tonight, Tonight,” the shape-shifting prog-rock tour de force “Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans” and the beatific, Beach Boys-esque pop of “Take Me Down.”
Even with alt-rock at its mid-90s height, Corgan understood that Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness needed widespread airplay to impact globally, so he ensured the album also included some of his band’s tastiest singles. Indeed, it eventually bequeathed a quartet of sizable hits, with “Tonight, Tonight” and “Thirty-Three” following the explosive lead single, “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” into the Top 40, and the angular new wave-style pop of “1979” reaching No. 12 in the US – providing the Pumpkins with their biggest U.S. hit in the process.
The singles’ chart performances, however, barely prepared the band for the album’s stratospheric take off. Propelled by the popularity of “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 following its October 23, 1995 release and eventually went diamond, selling over 10 million copies in North America alone. The album was also roundly praised by the critics (with Time magazine accurately dubbing it “the group’s most ambitious and accomplished work yet”) and it spawned seven Grammy nominations in 1996, with “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” earning the band that year’s Best Hard Rock Performance award.
Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness remains a high-water mark in The Smashing Pumpkins’ canon. Containing numerous unreleased tracks and B-sides from the sessions, 1996’s The Aeroplane Flies High compilation revealed just how much additional material the band laid down during their remarkable splurge of creativity, while the sheer scope of the album’s ambition often leads critics to favorably compare it to The Beatles’ landmark “White Album.”
“Mellon Collie is weird in that it’s a combination of nihilism, sentimentality, and epic hope,” Billy Corgan reflected to Rolling Stone.
“We made something that was more about capturing the spirit of the times, [rather] than worrying about making a perfect record. I never felt [Mellon Collie] was perfect, but I think it’s perfectly imperfect.”