When Big Gets Bigger
Rounding out EMI Music’s dutiful series of remasters, including last year’s do-overs on Gish and Siamese Dream, as well as a summer 2012 release of the compilation set, Pisces Iscariot, The Smashing Pumpkins’ sprawling 1995 double album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, has finally gotten its head-spinning due. Offered in an array of configurations, such as a straight-ahead remaster in four-LP or double-CD format, the mother lode lay in the oh-so-expanded Deluxe Box Set, a highly festooned five-CD jewelry box stuffed with 64 unreleased tracks, a DVD of Mellon Collie-era live performances, two full-color art books lavished with liner notes, interviews and photography, a “découpage kit” for scrapbooking your own scenes from the album’s romantic universe—I’m not making this up!—and a half-used bottle of rhythm guitarist James Iha’s favorite hair dye. (OK, I made that last part up.)
Somehow, the almost fatuous bigness of this package expands and complements what was already a lofty and shambolic double LP. After mastermind Billy Corgan and company made both artistic and commercial headway with the Butch Vig-produced Siamese Dream, a multi-platinum chart topper in its own right, the group decided on desisting from another studio-perfect, 13-track song cycle in favor of just “lettin’ it all hang out,” in the grand tradition of belt-busting double albums like Exile on Main St., Physical Graffiti or The Wall. Parting ways with the more perfectionistic Vig, the Pumpkins opted for Flood—a.k.a. Mark Ellis—and long-time producer friend Alan Moulder, whose combined efforts helped make stars of Nick Cave and The Jesus and Mary Chain. The sessions soon to follow would of course become the mega-selling Mellon Collie, a career-defining opus that the Pumpkins, despite a revolving door of lineup changes thereafter, have yet to match in scope and beauty.
Right away, for those accustomed to the old vinyl copy’s song order, you’re in for a little shake-up. Disc 1 is rather front-loaded, burning through “Zero,” “Here is No Why” and “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” before you even reach its halfway point. In fairness, it’s worth stating the order here reflects the 1995 version’s CD cycle, and not, in my view, the much-preferred vinyl scheme. For stubborn lovers of Mellon Collie’s well-paced wax set list—a delicate AOR interplay of light and shade, and to be honest, every bit as inspired as the standalone power of each song—you’ll just have to bite your tongue. With this, the Deluxe Box Set toes the line of a missed opportunity by passing up on a genius series of controlled bursts in exchange for the powder keg approach. Of course it helps the remasters sound clearer and tighter, though. In a side-by-side comparison, the new “Zero” has diamond-hard mids and shapelier lows, with Corgan’s reedy screams lancing through the mix a little cleaner. Still, you could argue “Zero” was meant to bleed a little, and run together—or have a big ol’ Fozzie Bear bottom end.
What can’t be fussed about, however, is the brilliance of these songs. The grandiose, quiet-to-loud melodies of “Tonight, Tonight,” “By Starlight” and “To Forgive” form some of the most indelible ballads not only of the ’90s grunge era, but rock music in general. Even the “lesser” cuts deserve close inspection. “Cupid De Locke,” for instance, is a radiant harps-and-clouds number, ticking along with unusual percussion—purportedly thanks to salt shakers and a pair of scissors—along with an insistent, aqueous harp arpeggio. The tune rolls and waxes like some pointillistic calliope, eventually steaming to a close with Corgan floating a naïve, spoken-word outro of “faith, compassion and love,” stopping just short of the effete, “fair Atlantis” imagery of ’60s starchild Donovan. Such willful naïveté—especially in light of Corgan’s bouts of open-wound cynicism found elsewhere—is a sterling sample of Mellon Collie’s romance, adventure and kaleidoscopic span.
“Porcelina of the Vast Oceans,” too, exudes such fascinating breadth, compressing many moods into a single miniature. Its intro of hushed, afterglow instrumentals swell and stretch, until bang! A sledgehammer riff cuts through the gossamer, only for another segue into a hand drum-dappled pop verse. From languid to lashing out, the song is a double rainbow of angst and catharsis. Strangely, though, despite the inclusion of this minor classic and every other Mellon Collie track, there’s one strange omission among this gamut-running vault of music: When you reach the end of Disc 2—which for the original would be the album’s formal close—the satisfying bookend instrumental, “Infinite Sadness,” again found on Mellon Collie’s initial vinyl edition, is nowhere to be found, and indeed never to appear on Discs 3, 4 or 5. This, to me, is an oversight, but nevertheless, in lieu of such a peculiar absence is an absolute downpour of rough cuts, unfinished instrumentals, curious alternate mixes and cutting-room floor originals—including, among many others, “Take Me Down,” an excellent Lennonesque ballad penned and sung by James Iha.
Ultimately, though the less-preferred set list overturns some nuanced juxtapositions, closing tune “Infinite Sadness” has gone poof and some of the remastering is possibly too aggressive, the Melon Collie Deluxe Box Set still leaves you with a lovingly filigreed, cram-packed conversation piece—the likes of which no Edwardian, mahogany-decked man cave would be complete without. Iha’s hair dye sold separately.