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There he is: Billy Corgan. The Baby Huey of modern rock. The Pillsbury Dough Boy with chops. The pudgy-faced 800-pound gorilla who can sit anywhere he damn well wants. Corgan and his band, Smashing Pumpkins, are currently squatting atop the heap of postalternative modern rock by virtue of their ambitious double-CD project Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, an impressive, 28-song collection that has the depth to keep Corgan and his Pumpkin pals affixed to their perch for some time.
Smashing Pumpkins is huge. Get used to it.
Corgan's not exactly the most beloved man-child in rock 'n' roll. He's widely perceived as a conceited control freak, a Pumpkin-head who's monopolized his band. That perception was cemented when it came to light that Corgan played almost all the instruments on the Pumpkins' 1993 LP Siamese Dream, sending guitarist James Iha and bassist D'arcy Wretzky to the bench with ham-fisted charm.
The Pumpkin front man is also targeted by critics for his whining vocals and sophomoric mood swings. And several fellow alterna-rockers have made it a point to go after the guy. Pavement's song "Range Life," for example, features the line, "Out on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins ... they don't have no function."
But still there's Corgan, bobbing and weaving through all the barbs and shaking his fleshy fists at his critics and rivals by taking everything that everyone can't stand about his music and pushing it to epic proportions on a double CD.
Mellon Collie's grandeur begins quietly. The first disc, subtitled "Dawn to Dusk," starts off with a piano instrumental that has a John Lennon touch of, well, melancholy. This innocuous opening is followed by "Tonight, Tonight," a restrained, symphonic platform for Corgan's vocals, which make their first, strained appearance on the disc. It's immediately clear that Corgan's strangled vocal style has hardly developed since the band's 1991 debut album, Gish.
"Tonight" also serves notice that Corgan's lyrics still hover around the emotional maturity level of a hypersensitive 15-year-old: "You can never leave without leaving a piece of youth," he screams on the song, then goes on to prove his point by littering the rest of the double-disc set with candy wrappers of teeny-angst. "Living makes me sick/So sick I wish I'd die," he bellyaches on "Jellybelly"; "I sensed my loss even before I learned to talk," we learn on "To Forgive"; and, ever the postadolescent nihilist, Corgan waxes Nietzschean on "Zero": "Emptiness is loneliness, and loneliness is cleanliness/And cleanliness is godliness and god is empty just like me/... I'm in love with my sadness."
There's a whole lotta anxiety going on. And that's just the opening disc.
Corgan's fractured muse may be hard to take seriously, but it's based on real pain. He's the product of divorced and uninterested parents, and suffered severe depression and a nervous breakdown just prior to recording Siamese Dream. Nevertheless, his poetics come off as undergrad at best. But what saves the songs, and ultimately keeps the impact of the lyrics intact, is how the sentiments are presented: Corgan's an accomplished songwriter and a monster guitarist. And while lines like "Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage" may cause even the palest of poets to blanch, Corgan's crunching chords and pop-metal hooks make that particular song, "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," a convincing winner. Same goes for the sonics of the aforementioned "Zero," as well as the first two songs on the second disc, "Where Boys Fear to Tread" and "Bodies," both Sabbathlike stompers that make Corgan a little easier to take when he informs us that "love is suicide," among other revelations.
That the Pumpkins' harder-edged approach works well is no surprise. Corgan has always seemed most confident with the distortion turned up. But on Mellon Collie, Corgan's at his most interesting when he extends his reach, as he does literally and figuratively with the CD's two longest cuts: "Through the Eyes of Ruby," a seven-plus-minute ballad mixed with anthemic moments, and "Porcelina of the Vast Oceans," a momentous effort that clocks in at just under nine minutes but never seems to drag.
The mythic mindset of "Porcelina" starts slowly, then builds as Crogan's oceanic imagery ebbs and floods with soft vocals and hard guitars. It's a sweet indication of the Great Pumpkin's growth as a songwriter.
Indeed, it's the evidence of Corgan's accelerating artistic evolution that gives Mellon Collie its sense of weight. By the end of the second disc, subtitled "Twilight to Starlight," Corgan replaces the Pumpkins' strong but familiar metal bluster with a curious mix of oddball tunes, starting with the almost Curelike pop of "1979," and including such disparate efforts as a zither 'n' bongo workout ("We Only Come Out at Night"), a fleshy take on white-face soul ("Beautiful") and "Farewell and Goodnight," a gentle, lolling lullaby co-written by Iha, one of only two of the tracks on Mellon Collie not penned solely by Corgan.
"Farewell and Goodnight" closes the two-disc set with Corgan, Iha, Wretzky and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain singing "Goodnight, my love, to every hour in every day/Goodnight, always, to all that's pure that's in your heart." It's an unabashedly sentimental song, willfully innocent and naive, and all the better for it.