Ambition has largely gotten a bum rap in rock and roll. In other art forms, it's considered a sign of maturity to want to expand your horizons and attempt some sort of epic work, but in rock, such aspirations are often mocked, as if attempting anything larger-scale than a dozen three-minute pop songs per album was ridiculously pretentious.
Over the years, of course, plenty of albums have proved that theory wrong. After the rambling brilliance of Bob Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde," the transformation genius of the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main St.," and the ruminative psychodrama of Pink Floyd's "The Wall," you'd think people would accept the idea that artistic ambition doesn't necessarily equal egocentric self-delusion.
Then you hear the Smashing Pumpkins' album "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" (Virgin 40861, arriving in stores today) and begin to see the naysayers' point.
It isn't just that "Mellon Collie" is unusually long, although with 28 songs and a playing time of more than two hours, the double-CD set is one of the heftiest studio albums in memory. The problem is that it doesn't contain two hours' or 28 songs' worth of ideas. Instead, it sounds as if head Pumpkin Billy Corgan is so utterly infatuated with the sound of his own adenoidal voice that he couldn't bear to cut a single note.
So he released it all, with no apparent concern for listener stamina or stylistic consistency. Anyone expecting a double dose of the kind of guitar crunch that made "Cherub Rock" and "Today" into instant alterna-rock standards is in for a shock, as the music on "Mellon Collie" is all over the map. Sure, songs like the muscular "Stumbleine," the punchy "Jellybelly" or the soaring, guitar-driven "Muzzle" provide many of the same thrills that made "Siamese Dream," the Pumpkins' breakthrough album, so memorable.
But it also includes such unexpected exercises as the symphonic sweep of "Tonight, Tonight," the mock-music-hall sound of "Lily (My One and Only)," the super-distorted blare of "Tales of a Scorched Earth" and the multi-textured sprawl of the nine-minute "Porcelina of the Vast Oceans."
Had each been delivered with the competence and ingenuity of "Siamese Dream," that wide-ranging approach wouldn't be much of a problem. Trouble is, Corgan is too much the dilettante to make most of this stuff work, with the end result that such songs as the brittle, noisy "X.Y.U" and the droning, new-wavey "1979" come across as little more than genre exercises. Toss in the sappy, Moody Blues-ish title tune (an instrumental, no less), and you're left with the most cluttered and confused megawork since the Clash's "Sandinista!"
Making it seem all the more absurdly self-absorbed are the lyrics. As anyone familiar with the Pumpkins' previous efforts knows, Corgan has never quite come across as Mr. Happy, but with these songs, he takes the art of alterna-rock whining to new heights.
Not content with merely being a rock star made miserable by success -- though he does try to out-Cobain the competition in the single "Bullet with Butterfly Wings," which finds him asserting that "the world is a vampire," and "despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage" -- he wants to move up a notch to existential angst.
Too bad that sort of depth is beyond him. Rather than address the solitary struggle of the individual conscience, he just whines about being lonely, and though he tries to address the universal condition, he finds it hard to drag his attention away from himself.
That's minor, though, compared with the inanity of the words themselves. Like many bad writers, Corgan confuses overblown language with high-flown thought, and so fills "Cupid de Locke" with haths and doths in the vain hope they'll make his twaddle seem poetic.
Unfortunately, poetry is quite clearly beyond him, as, in many cases, is grammar. (Try diagramming the opening line of "Galapogos": "Ain't it funny how we pretend we're still a child.") As a result, all that can be done with such lines as "emptiness is loneliness, and loneliness is cleanliness/and cleanliness is godliness, and god is empty just like me" is laugh at them.
But for two hours? Had Corgan possessed the discipline to whittle this down to a single disc, "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" would have not only seemed less infinite, but nowhere near as sad. As it is, though, the album will be of enduring interest only to those awed by minor talents with major egos.