“It’s not Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” will be the theme of the critical reaction to the new Smashing Pumpkins new album Cyr. The songs we’ve heard from this upcoming album thus far aren’t too bad, but they’re not Mellon Collie. At this date, some 25 years since its release (!), Billy Corgan probably has a love/hate relationship with the album called Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. We can guess that he loves the fact that he created what many call a masterpiece, for not many artists do, but he probably hates that everything he created lives in its shadow.
We all have varying tastes, of course, and some might say they prefer one of the other Smashing Pumpkins’ albums, but even they would admit Mellon Collie and Siamese Dream had special, timeless, and transcendental qualities about them that are difficult to recapture. Some of us call them masterpieces in their own right, and others say they are the products of Billy Corgan’s creative peak.
What is a creative peak? It is as difficult for artists to create, as it is to maintain. It is equally as difficult for the rest of us to explain. We can say that our reaction to it was a time and place phenomenon, and we could say that Billy Corgan’s creation of it had something to do with this phenomenon too. The finished products, coupled with the worldwide reaction to them might have satisfied Corgan’s need to prove himself, and he’s never been able to duplicate that inner drive. Those of us who have never accomplished such feats don’t know how hard it must be to recapture the elements that drove Corgan to create these albums. I don’t intend that to be a commentary on Billy Corgan’s work that followed, for I think most of his work post-Mellon Collie has been better than the vast majority of his peers, but he set such a high bar for himself with Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie. Every artist goes through peaks and valleys, and most of them cannot explain them. We can’t explain them either, as I wrote, we couldn’t explain why we prefer some art to others, but we know it when we see/hear it, especially in hindsight.
When creative peaks prove as fruitful as Corgan’s was, most of us laymen just assume that they will last forever, and when they don’t, we express our disappointment by saying, “It’s a good album, but it’s not as good as their masterpiece. It’s almost like they’re not trying anymore.” Everyone assumes that Kurt Cobain would’ve just gone on, had he lived, writing top-notch albums, but as Cobain wrote, “Teenage angst has paid off well. Now I’m bored and old.” It was almost as if he was preparing us for what was going to follow, if he lived of course.
If we lump Siamese Dream in with Mellon Collie, and we add Aeroplane Flies High and Pisces Iscariot into the mix, I think we can say that Billy Corgan had an enviable five-year run. Some of the songs on those latter two productions were definitely B-sides, but if we removed some of the top-notch songs on Aeroplane, we might be able to put together two high quality albums. We diehard fans have done so on blank cassette tapes and MP3 playlists. It just seems unfair to compare everything he’s done since, and everything he will do in the future to that creative peak, but such is the nature of art.
Billy Corgan and Co. were a songwriting machine from roughly 1993 to 1996. It was an incredibly creative period for Billy Corgan, Jimmy Chamberlain, and James Iha. (I’m sure Chamberlain, Iha, and D’arcy had more creative input than reports suggest, but from what I’ve read Corgan was the maestro/dictator in the studio.) Personally, I loved the album Gish, and I devoured that album before Siamese Dream’s release, but I wouldn’t put on the same shelf as Mellon Collie and Siamese Dream. I realize that some of the material on the boxset likely predates Siamese Dream, so let’s be generous in our estimate and say this creative period stretched out over a five year, incredibly prolific creative peak. How many musicians would give whatever remains of their otherwise damaged livers for 1/5th of the creative output the Smashing Pumpkins had in those five years? Personally, I think it was one of the most prolific periods of music for one artist in rock history, but I think it’s fair to say that the high bar Corgan set during this period ended twenty-five years ago.
I remember when the Smashing Pumpkins released the single Ava Adore. Oh boy,we thought, here we go again. The leap wasn’t as great as the one between Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie for some of us, but we all fantasized that the single was a sign that this peak would last far longer than we thought it would after the Pumpkins released a double album of material followed by a boxset. Siamese Dream was, after all, the opposite of a sophomore jinx. Once Siamese Dream hit our tape deck, it rendered Gish obsolete, and any flirtation we had with the idea that there might be a junior jinx ended the moment we heard the single Bullet with Butterfly Wings. So, when the single Ava Adore came out, it seemed feasible that Corgan was simply a hard rock/pop prodigy who would blow us out of the water every two to three years until the end of his life.
How could one man, and his band, release so much material in such a small amount of time, and come up with yet another great album? The answer was he couldn’t. The peak was over. I still think that if Corgan saved about eight of the best songs on Aeroplane Flies High, and combined them with the six best songs on Ava Adore, I think he could’ve satisfied critics and fans so much that they would’ve listed Ava Adore as his third best album and part of the creative peak. What motivated Corgan to release the boxset, I suspect, was that he wanted to put Mellon Collie, and everything attached to it, behind him. I think he wanted to defeat the idea of a creative peak in his own mind and challenge himself with a restart.
When critics savaged R.E.M.’s first effort without Bill Berry, 1998’s Up, Michael Stipe complained that he thought Up was a great album. He said that critics unfairly compared Up to their previous five albums, i.e. their creative peak. He said something along the lines of, “If an up and coming band created Up, you critics would be salivating all over it, but because it wasn’t Automatic for the People, Monster, or New Adventures in Hi-Fi, you think the album stinks.” Perhaps Stipe and Co. were frustrated that the high bar they set for themselves that couldn’t be maintained forever, or that they felt like the critics helped cut that peak short prematurely. It’s also possible that the departure of Bill Berry was more profound than anyone imagined. Whatever the case was for them, the critics were right, as Up proved the creative peak was over for R.E.M. They would release four more albums and except for a few singles here and there, those albums only provided further evidence that peaks end for every creative artist.
Stipe’s greater question is worthy of exploration however. How would we regard albums like Ava Adore or Machina, if they came out before Mellon Collie or Siamese Dream? It’s impossible to answer of course, but it’s an interesting question.
Artists can artificially attempt to realign the stars back to the configuration they experienced during their peak. They can bring back ex-members, hire the producer who helped finesse their masterpiece, and they can go back to the basics, after expunging their need to experiment. They can eat nothing but bacon and drink nothing but the flavor of Snapple they drank when they created their masterpiece, but something will forever elude them.
Our immediate reaction to a new Smashing Pumpkins album now is, they just lost it, whatever it is. They can write some great singles here and there, but as far as writing awe-inspiring magic that drove them to create deep cuts and B-sides that are better than most bands’ hit singles, those days are over. The greater question I would ask is, “Did they ever have it?” The answer to that question, to my mind, is an undeniable, “YES! Yes, they did. For five years, Billy Corgan and Co. created some of the most beautiful, most aggressive, and most pleasing music some of us have ever heard.” For all of the comparatively greater praise devoted to bands such as Guns N’ Roses, Metallica and Nirvana, they only had two influential, transcedental albums. As great as Mr. Bungle and Soundgarden were, they only came out with two fantastic albums. How many great bands came out with songs that blew our minds, but they failed to follow those great songs up with enough deep cuts to make a great album? It’s debatable, but I would suggest that great singles blind most people to the fact that most of the albums they were on weren’t as great as we thought they were.
In some ways, legends like The Beatles, Queen, David Bowie, and Led Zeppelin spoiled us by setting such an unreasonable standard for the rest of the bands in music by having more than two great albums. For those who are lucky enough to have more than one great album, they should go on to make the best music they can, but they should know that they will probably never be able to recapture that ‘time and place’ magic that usually only happens once in a lifetime. If it happens twice, live it and love it for as long as it lasts, for it will probably never happen again. This note also goes out to all critics, fans, and everyone in between who judge decent to good albums on the basis that they’re not as great as the albums these artists produced during their peak. How many of our favorite artists never made one great album, top to bottom?
As one reviewer on Allmusic.com wrote, “You can’t blame Billy [Corgan], he already did his best.” This reviewer reminds me of other non-creative types who have never created one piece of art. The implicit suggestion some make is that once a creative peak ends the artist should just quit. They should just ride off into the sunset, collect their royalty checks and consider their life a life well lived. They do the same with athletes. They suggest that after a professional athlete wins a championship that he should just retire. They proved that they did the best they could with their talent, and we all know that it’s downhill from here, so we want them to quit so we can live with a fond memory of them. What we forget when we make such self-serving requests is how hard it is to accomplish great artistic and athletic feats. They require massive amounts of practice, time spent doing this while their friends did something else, and a level of commitment and passion that critics and fans will never understand. That passion doesn’t just end even if they come to terms with the idea that they’ve peaked. The passion is their reason for being, and we don’t have to pay tickets to see them do it, but to call for them to end their career is self-serving. I think the passion and love that drove Bill Cogran to create the masterpieces Mellon Collie and Siamese Dream is obvious in the beautiful music he’s created since, even if what he captured during that five-year peak isn’t.