The perfect album lands between 42 and 47 minutes. It’s long enough to embrace an emotional arc and take the listener on a journey without overstaying its welcome or veering into self-indulgence. Every so often, however, an album earns a longer stay. Indeed, some of popular music’s greatest feats are far longer than 60 minutes. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly runs 78 minutes; Pink Floyd’s The Wall is slightly longer at 80 minutes; the Beatles’ boundless White Album deserves every bit of its 93 minutes (though I used to believe it was half fluff).
These three are exceptions to my rule, which holds up about 95% of the time. But it’s always a special treat when, about once a year, a long listen really pays off and enters my personal canon of great music. This week, the culprit was Smashing Pumpkins with their 121-minute magnum opus, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
To be honest, I had avoided this listen for years partly because of the extended runtime and partly because a random stranger at McKay’s Used Books and CDs felt the need to advise college me, “That’s a really hard listen.” I don’t know why I remember that specific encounter or why the opinions of a man I’d never met dissuaded me from listening to a record. But here we are five-ish years later, and I’m going to give you some advice as well: it’s a really hard listen. However, I love challenges. And d̶e̶s̶p̶i̶t̶e̶ because of the album’s abrasive eclecticism, flirtations with nihilism, and explorations of existentialism, Mellon Collie will prove one of the most memorable listens from 1995.
Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan once ambitiously claimed the record would be The Wall for Generation X, and he’s not wrong. Across the album’s 28 songs, Corgan and company explore societal isolation, loneliness, love, and its distortions as proficiently as Roger Waters had done 16 years prior. Add to this a Gen-X-specific penchant for angst, and you get a generation-defining piece of art to rival ‘90s essentials Fight Club, Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, and Nirvana’s Nevermind.
It’s a musical tapestry that toes the line between chaotic and precisely composed. Chris Thiessen
At the root of Corgan’s angst is anxiety about self and thoughts of a homogenized society without personality. “I fear that I am ordinary just like everyone,” he begins on “Muzzle.” This lack of self-understanding isolates Corgan even from himself, as he sings on “Zero,” “My reflection, dirty mirror / There’s no connection to myself.” These thoughts fuel Corgan’s nihilistic tendencies, as he laments on “Jellybelly,” “There’s nothing left to do / There’s nothing left to feel / Doesn’t matter what you want,” or concedes on hit single “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.”
Despite feelings of confinement and meaninglessness, Smashing Pumpkins rage anyway and find a way to break down the homogeneity and isolation through their eclectic approach to music. Mellon Collie is a melting pot of heavy metal riffage; prog-rock experimentalism; grungy attitude; sweet, pop-sensitive melody; and an expert’s attention to texture. It sounds like everything and nothing at once—from the muddy, industrial guitars on “Tales of a Scorched Earth” to the dreamy autoharp on “Cupid de Locke” to the triumphant orchestral arrangement of “Tonight, Tonight.” It’s a musical tapestry that toes the line between chaotic and precisely composed. Through the music itself, the Smashing Pumpkins escape the rat’s cage and leave the door open for us as well.
Surprisingly, Mellon Collie is also home to some of the sweetest love lullabies of the ‘90s, something you definitely don’t find with contemporaries Nine Inch Nails and Nirvana. Though the simply-titled “Love” may be one of the album’s few skippers, “Galapogos” is one of those sad love songs, in the tradition of the Beach Boys’ “You Still Believe In Me” before it and Radiohead’s “True Love Waits” after it, that doesn’t “deny the pain,” and yet shimmers with hope born from love.
If I have one complaint, it’s that their greatest song, “Tonight, Tonight,” opens the record instead of closing it. In truth, it should be the album’s climax rather than an overture—a look back at the dark journey through infinite, unchanging sadness we’ve endured and a look forward with hope to “believe that life can change / that you’re not stuck in vain.” On the other hand, maybe that beautiful exhortation to believe needed to be said upfront. Maybe it’s the guiding truth that makes the 121 minutes of existential dread, angst, doubt, and emptiness endurable. Maybe we need to remember that the song’s promise—that things will be made right, that the impossible is possible—predates and postdates the pain. Maybe sadness isn’t infinite after all.