Saturday, December 1, 2012

Songs #319 & #320 - Smashing Pumpkins

Songs #319 & #320 of 9999

Title: Bullet With Butterfly Wings/1979
Artist: Smashing Pumpkins
Year: 1995
Album: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

It's funny how a band's most ambitious work often signals the beginning of the end. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is monumental in scope. Too monumental for me as it turned out as I never had the patience to digest the entire album in one sitting. Not that I should have tried—Billy Corgan has described the two halves of the album as representing "night and day," so what business did I have trying to squeeze it into a measly two hours!? Corgan also said he wanted to "approach the album as if it were (the band's) last" and I don't think he realized how prescient he was being. (There were two more albums before the breakup but nothing as artistically or commercially successful as this.)

I chose two of the bigger hits for this post because I think they serve as appropriate bookends for the record and reveal some clues about the coming demise of Smashing Pumpkins. "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" rocks as hard as anything on Gish or Siamese Dream even as it structured to resemble a pop song. The guitars are dense and dark, the dynamic changes extreme. Harmonically, the song is essentially pentatonic—you can play it on just the black keys of your piano (try it!). Outside of the instrumental break at 2:26, there's not a half-step interval to be found. But most of all, the song drips with skeevy nervous tension, the perfect accompaniment for the "rat in a cage" refrain.

And then there's "1979," which Billy Corgan has described as the "most personally important song" on the record. We hear electronic drums, looped samples, synthesizers (or guitars that sound like synthesizers) and it all sounds....happy. I don't know how much the other band members contributed to this song but this is the sound of an evolving artist in Corgan. Suddenly, there is an exploration of wide interval dissonances (like the persistent major 7th that opens the track and a more subtle 9th that comes later) and all the density of the early Pumpkins sound is replaced with airy spaces. For better or for worse, this isn't the sound of a band and it's likely the moment Billy Corgan became the sole permanent member of Smashing Pumpkins.

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