Trim the Fat: ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’
Trim the Fat is where we look into an album of a certain length and quality, and ask the hardest question of all: Would this record be any better if it were shorter? Our first case study will be that of 1995's massive 2LP effort by the Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness, a Grammy-winning, diamond-certified opus that clocks in at a massive 120+ minutes.
Before founding frontman Billy Corgan fell down the conspiracy theorist / wrestling promoter rabbit hole, he led one of the greatest bands of the '90s. At the height of the Pumpkins' career, in a decade where many bands fought against the spotlight, Corgan wanted to ascend. After releasing 1993's breakout Siamese Dream, the band made the ultimate excess move by unveiling Mellon Collie as a double album. Clocking in at a hefty two hours, the album exhibited an emotional take on existentialism, unbridled teen angst and an unyielding belief in love. Though the record contains some of the band's most accomplished and memorable work to date, its size lends itself to more than a little indulgence. With love and respect to Mellon Collie, we went down the track list, cut down the non-essentials and came up with a revised LP we stand behind.
"IN THE ARMS OF SLEEP"
What drags down Mellon Collie the most is that all of the filler songs sound nice, but nothing leads anywhere interesting. "In the Arms of Sleep" is indicative of this, feeling like Corgan and crew are just jamming along in a coffee shop. It resembles a meandering dream about cats — you're not going to remember anything specific.
"TAKE ME DOWN"
James Iha's two contributions on the record are solid, working as bookends for the CD track list. It's a dreamy and sweet song, albeit ultimately weaker than his other contribution, "Farewell and Goodnight."
Part of me is convinced that Corgan forming Zwan with David Pajo was predicted by "To Forgive." The low energy imitates the darkest corners of Spiderland while also missing the mark on what made that record so moving. Some of the Pumpkins' most memorable moments result from their use of space to create quiet poignancy, but this one misses the mark.
"BULLET WITH BUTTERFLY WINGS"
Move past your gut reaction thinking that this is an iconic or classic song. Of all the singles on the record, it's the weakest both musically and lyrically, evidence of how goofy and ridiculous Corgan's writing can get. The song's chorus is hard to recognize as anything more than an eternally regenerating meme at this point. But even taking its cultural impact out of the question, "Bullet" just sucks. It did earn them a Grammy in 1997 for Best Hard Rock Performance, a fitting award for the track.
"THRU THE EYES OF RUBY"
Ruby should probably get her vision checked. Another long-in-the-tooth Pumpkins song that has some moderately interesting dreamy interludes. Unfortunately, they settle on a weird guitar autopilot that sounds like it should be a part of another song. It brings up another frustrating aspect about the record as a whole: When there's a spark of something interesting or different, it's often never seen through to the end. Thus, we're left with too many half-ideas hanging.
Aside from "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," this is probably the closest the Pumpkins get to unabashed cock rock. Corgan's jackassery is at its worst where he yells for no real reason. Probably not even good enough for Pisces Iscariot.
"TALES OF A SCORCHED EARTH"
This just sounds like they wrote "Bodies" twice, but it doesn't go anywhere more compelling the second time around. The highlight is that Corgan sounds authentically manic, augmented by gnarly compression on his voice. Still, the song sounds like the band could've banged it out in the span of an hour.
While the song does incorporate some interesting electronics that probably paved the way for Machina, there's not enough to really latch onto. It's a little too saccharine with all the starry twinkles, sounding closer to a lullaby than a real song.
"CUPID DE LOCKE"
Total interlude of a track. Not much going; might actually be more effective if Corgan's voice wasn't present. The flowery sounds are neat and all, but get nullified when the overly dramatic sweeping comes down. It's just sort of ... there.
Maybe the closest the Pumpkins come to channeling My Bloody Valentine, featuring a wavy outro. It sounds like maybe Corgan wanted to end the album on this song, but Iha's "Farewell and Goodnight" was better suited to the task. This might have stood out more if not for the extended comedown of the previous two or three songs (depending on your track list).
"WE ONLY COME OUT AT NIGHT"
The chorus points out how fine a line the band treads, varying between incredibly beautiful and utterly corny. This falls into the latter, the sing-along moments almost sounding like what you'd hear on some kids show. It’s almost a good idea, but executed poorly.
Another retread along the lines of “Zero” and “Bodies,” with a different layer of production over everything. It’s emblematic of a lot of the album’s filler: "Love" takes similar sounds and expands on them in shallow ways instead of doing anything deeper.
Another interlude — just Corgan and an acoustic guitar. It’s nice enough, but ultimately pretty boring.
"LILY (MY ONE AND ONLY)"
This song is pretty rough. The band fucks around with a piano and some other instruments, so this comes across like a slice of Americana more than a rock song. Which would be fine, but it feels totally out of place not only compared to the rest of the record, but their catalog as a whole. Ultimately, another Corgan love song that pales in comparison to his more effective efforts.
"MELLON COLLIE AND THE INFINITE SADNESS"
Since the record was released in the '90s, using the title track as a gimmicky pre-gap song seems like a perfect move. The instrumental sets the tone for the rest of the album, its string section and piano both spacey and grandiose, like an overture for the rest of a play. It’s exemplifies why the band is so highly regarded, showcasing their ability to create lush, emotional soundscapes.
“Tonight, Tonight” is essentially the Pumpkins’ love of grandeur at its best. Corgan’s nasal held note is the definitive example of the band’s music being “almost beautiful.” The orchestral string sections and emotional intensity capture all the power of the band’s best work. It speaks to holding out hope despite the inevitability of death, forcing ourselves not to be afraid of exuberance and being ever-present in the now.
The original vinyl pressing’s sequencing from “Tonight, Tonight” to “Thirty-Three” is arguably more effective than the former leading to “Jellybelly” on the CD pressing “Thirty-Three” is the perfect comedown from the emotions of “Tonight, Tonight,” juxtaposing the former’s complexity with the latter’s blissful simplicity. It’s Corgan at his most romantic, and “And you can make it last forever” is a totally beautiful chorus.
The album’s duality between softer, romantic moments and unrestrained heaviness explains why so many fell in love with it in the first place. “Jellybelly” is our first taste of that heaviness, the verse riff dizzying and crushing, yet somehow still dreamy in approach.
An often unfairly overlooked track, featuring near-black metal riffing and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin at his best. The T-shirt-worthy refrain “Love is suicide” pops up in different contexts of a metallic chorus. And the breath of fresh air midway through cements this as one of the album's finest cuts.
"PORCELINA OF THE VAST OCEANS"
Starting off from a point so quiet you can barely hear it, "Porcelina" is Pumpkins excess at its sweetest. It's the track that comes closest to capturing the feeling of the album cover — esoteric figures floating in endless, dreamy space — making for one of Mellon Collie's most memorable journeys.
"HERE IS NO WHY"
This song was always a great bumper from its heavier predecessors, settling into a slightly softer melody, but winding up just as anthemic. It’s full of some of Corgan's best writing, about surviving both teen love and the apocalypse, which is the most Smashing Pumpkins juxtaposition imaginable.
What the band missed on so many of the filler tracks, they knock out of the park here. Quiet and delicate guitar work slowly builds up as the track goes on, creating a perfect slow dance. Corgan's voice is soft and sweet, but louder guitars and fiercer vocals rage to the forefront before a long exhalation.
Is there anything more to be said about “1979”? It’s become a part of the public rock consciousness, summing up a band’s entire body of work into four minutes and 24 seconds of perfection. It expands upon the record's earlier themes, a whirlwind of angst and love and pain creating a pristine atmosphere. Their most successful and popular song is a wonderful self-fulfilling prophecy — it's explicitly about acknowledging the great uncertainty of what comes after death, then laughing it off as a huge cosmic joke while you keep on living.
"WHERE BOYS FEAR TO TREAD"
This is a nice snap back into the band’s heavier leanings, the song sounding like a downtuned Sonic Youth in some places. It’s methodically tuned, hinting that the band isn’t afraid to get sludgy when necessary. “Boys” sets the tone for the fifth side of the vinyl sequencing, the band at their most deranged, heavy and apocalyptic.
“Zero” ups the pace a bit from “Where Boys Fear to Tread,” and is one of the band’s coolest singles. It’s hard not to like its simple, catchy main riff. The Pumpkins let themselves to go a little nuts in the bridge, the guitars sounding like a dying computer behind Corgan's screams. One of the band’s most memorable tracks of all time.
"FUCK YOU (AN ODE TO NO ONE)"
A perfect part-three to the sequence, “Fuck You (An Ode to No One)” raises the stakes even higher for the band’s heavier approach, allowing them to hit breakneck speeds before taking a brief (and thankfully temporary) detour into quiet.
The one long track we’ve included in our sequencing brings the previous trilogy of tracks to a logical conclusion. A common criticism of the band nowadays is that nothing’s as heavy as it used to be, but this song leads one to think that maybe Corgan's done all he needs to when it comes to flirting with heavy metal. In its lead-up to the end, the instrumentation nods to the likes of Melvins and Black Sabbath, a chaotic wreck that keeps escalating. “X.Y.U.” hits a climax when the band shifts to top speed, Chamberlin drumming harder than anywhere else on the album and Corgan totally possessed, yelling, “There is no going back” before launching into a sludgy breakdown and off-the-rails solo. The entire band playing at the same time (in just one take) is captured perfectly, an authoritative fuck-you to anyone who doubts their abilities.
"FAREWELL AND GOOD NIGHT"
The perfect closer for the record, a final wave goodbye. D’arcy Wretzky’s voice joins Iha's, a pristine union of underutilized talent. It sees Mellon Collie to a close, reflecting its beginning in a wonderful way, and punctuating the end of one of the best records of the '90s.
FINAL RUN TIME: 1:03:09