The Smashing Pumpkins
Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness (reissue)
, January 15th, 2013 10:02
Billy Corgan's deluxe re-release of his entire career arrives at 1995's Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, certainly the band's commercial peak and arguably their creative peak too. It's one of the most extraordinarily ambitious records of its era - a 28-track double album that ran the full gamut from screaming metal ('XYU', 'Tales Of A Scorched Earth') to acoustic lullabies ('Stumbeline', 'Cupide de Locke') via drum machines, orchestras and layer upon layer of fuzzy guitars. Remarkably it worked - the album sold by the bucketload to Gen X'ers bored of the primitive thump of grunge, and crossed over to the widest audience enjoyed by an alt rock band outside of Nirvana's Nevermind, spawning five monster hit singles and essentially ensuring Corgan his place in the pantheon of 90s greats. Without MCIS it's unlikely he'd be headlining festivals today.
Corgan has always been prolific, but the period following the release of 1993's Siamese Dream saw him establish a work ethic that would cost him a good deal of his sanity and the rest of his hair. The Mellon Collie sessions would eventually produce enough material for a second double album, released as the Aeroplane Flies High box set the following year and getting its own re-release in 2013. Fans have known for years that the well was far from dry- the original Aeroplane... box included a 23-minute sound collage of some 70 unused song snippets. The potential for an exhaustive box set was staggering.
The good news is that the MCIS Deluxe edition very much meets those expectations. A mammoth six discs cover the remastered album with three devoted to demos, rough mixes, new mixes, unreleased tracks and studio cuts while the sixth disc DVD has highlights from a 1996 show at Brixton Academy and footage from German TV showcasing a band at the peak of their live powers. The box itself is a lavish twelve inch affair with a beautifully presented lyrics book and detailed production notes and artwork. It's one of the more handsome deluxes you'll see this year. You will, however, have to pay through the nose - gorgeous as it is, £140 is monstrously expensive in these troubled times. Alternatively £40 will get you a download of the 93 audio tracks, but even that feels pricey for a collection that is three fifths demos and rough cuts.
The Mellon Collie album itself has aged far better than many of its peers. The sheer breadth of the material is staggering, few records can find room for proggy epics like 'Thru The Eyes Of a Ruby', the metalcore “rat in a cage” snarl of 'Bullet With Butterfly Wings', which sounds like nothing else of its time, the New Orderish clockwork pop of '1979' AND the joyous orchestral rush of 'Tonight Tonight'. The double album format allowed Corgan and co to be every version of themselves. This was the heaviest they'd ever been, the gentlest they'd been, the most out-there, the rawest, the most sonically polished, the most shamelessly pop. It pushed the extremes of their sound, using up everything they had to the point that 1998's follow up album, Adore, had to redesign the band from the ground up. The remaster gives it a little more sonic punch, but if you've got MCIS already and have no interest in tinkering under its star shaped hood it's probably not essential you update it.
For the inquisitive fan, though, the extra discs are often a joy. Rather than throwing b-sides and live tracks in (most of which are earmarked for the upcoming Aeroplane... re-release anyway) Corgan allows us into every stage of the process, breaking songs apart and showing the working out. It's probably in the spirit of Mellon Collie that the indulgences occasionally go into self parody- we get 'Tonight Tonight' without strings, 'Tonight Tonight' with just the strings, and an alternative take on the acoustic 'Tonite Reprise', we get four versions of 'Thru The Eyes of A Ruby'. The acoustic 'Sadlands' demos show how fully formed some of Corgan's ideas were before he even brought them to the band, while the various 'floor mixes' and 'live studio roughs' showcase a well drilled four-piece recording as-live that could turn on a sixpence and create an impressive racket without the studio polish of the final versions, especially true on 'Fuck You (An Ode to No One)' and 'Porcelina of the Vast Oceans'. Amid the scraps and cuttings there's a dizzying amount of ideas, many of which would be developed years down the line - 'Chinoise' the basis of 1998s 'For Martha', while 'Zoom' would resurface as 2008s 'G.L.O.W'. A brilliant electronic take on Joy Division's 'Isolation' and a paired down version of 'Eye' showed Corgan was already establishing the sonic palette of the Adore record. For a fan it's fascinating stuff.
There is lot of filler here too - the kind of fan likely to buy this will already own some of these tracks several times over, there's new mixes that add basically nothing to the originals and short abandoned instrumentals that never really needed to see the light of day. Pumpkin scholars hoping for genuine lost gems will find little here that really stands up on its own, with the lovely 'Towers of Rabble' and James Iha's 'One & Two', (the latter of which was redone for his solo album anyway) the only really good complete tracks not already out in the world. The set could probably have lost a disc without denting the quality, but then that £140 would be even harder to justify.
To say this is a 'fans only' set is something of an understatement, but if you do have an interest and indeed if you can actually afford it, this is a lovingly put together and ridiculously detailed exploration of a record that has aged very well. For those whose interest is more casual the two-disc edition is well worth revisiting.