Many were surprised two years ago when Billy Corgan, the near-legendary frontman of the Smashing Pumpkins, announced he was forming a new band instead of pursuing the solo career many had seen as inevitable.
The new creation, Zwan, consisting of Corgan, Pumpkins’ drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, guitarist Matt Sweeny of Skunk, and guitarist/bassist David Pajo, formerly of the late ’80s/early ’90s indie rock band Slint.
The new group soon embarked on a series of three tours, each featuring an entirely different set of songs — allowing the band to form a live following and display its expansive repertoire of 60-plus songs. In April, bassist Paz Lenchantin (formerly of A Perfect Circle) joined the band.
Zwan’s first studio album, Mary Star of the Sea, was released on Jan. 28. Mary Star of the Sea might not be a Smashing Pumpkins record, but it is still Billy Corgan — and for many fans, that alone will be enough. The bald pale prophet of alt rock with the messiah complex is still here, guitar in hand, voice as high and as whiny as ever.
The rest of the world will find that just because Mary Star of the Sea is not Gish, Siamese Dream, or Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness does not mean it is not a good record. With his most recent creation, Corgan asks the Pumpkin faithful to follow him while at the same time he appeals to a whole new audience.
The album is anchored by the climactic 14 minute “Jesus I/Mary Star of the Sea,” the first half of which is a reworking of the hymn “Jesus I My Cross Have Taken.” In fact, Zwan doesn’t skimp on the religious imagery at all. Corgan is credited as Billy Burke, which, as Rolling Stone pointed out, is also the name of a prominent Southern evangelist. The messiah complex that Corgan has long been accused of having really shows — but it works. “Here comes my faith to carry me on,” sings Corgan in “Lyric,” the wonderfully catchy, chorus-driven intro, kicking the CD off with religious imagery from the very first line. It follows through even to the final track, “Come With Me.”
“Honestly,” their first single, seems even more appealing in the context of the entire album. The fabulous “Lyric” is only an introduction to the great bass-driven “Settle Down” and the wonderful ballad-like appeal of “Declarations of Faith” that both lead into “Honestly.” And while the album may lag a bit in the middle, with some mediocre songs and adaptations of traditional songs, Zwan picks it back up sooner than one might expect. In “Yeah!”, Corgan has an up-tempo lament in the style of the Pumpkins’ “I am One” and “Cherub Rock,” leading into the climactic final tracks.
The religious aspect of the album is an important one to note and a hard one to miss. But despite what Rolling Stone may have you believe, the power of Mary Star of the Sea is not all about Corgan’s “ridiculous rock and roll Messiah pose.” The album is a good one on its own merits, and does much to display the many talents of Corgan’s new group.
It’s not the Smashing Pumpkins, but did we really need another Adore? Mary Star of the Sea is an unquestioned success for Corgan and Zwan, and well worth the wait.