Zwan – Mary Star of the Sea

Mary Star of the Sea

I’ve always had sort of a love/hate relationship with Billy Corgan. I can remember back to freshman year of high school, when my best friend and I would endlessly debate the merits of The Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana. By the end of the year, we had very little established: he loved The Pumpkins, but was willing to accept Nirvana’s style. I was never so accepting. I kept on hating The Pumpkins, but especially that voice. The voice that ruined a thousand riffs. Just imagine what kind of world domination would’ve awaited Corgan and SP if he sounded cool like Cobain or big like Cornell. It wasn’t until I started playing guitar that I could no longer conscience ignoring Corgan. I would learn to play “Cherub Rock,” dammit, voice or no voice.
After immersing myself in Siamese Dream and sifting through the brilliant/misguided Mellon Collie, I was hooked. And although I’ve avoided Adore like the plague, I’ve heard most of everything else they’ve released. And even though some of the Cure-isms and bloated concepts of Corgan’s last Pumpkins record, Machina/The Machines of God, were hard to digest, I listened.
So when reports started coming that Corgan was mobilizing a guitar army over on Lake Michigan and preparing to march, I was intrigued, but mostly in a groan-worthy sort of way. When SP broke up, I wasn’t sad so much as relieved. I thought we could all sit back and wait for an inevitable collection of rarities and live material from the glory years. But Corgan was assembling his troops, amassing an army of credible axemen who would set their weapons ablaze and reclaim his good name. David Pajo from Slint, Matt Sweeney from Chavez, and Paz Lenchantin from A Perfect Circle. Also included was the only other indispensable member of SP, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. This formidable lineup of Windy City vets formed Zwan. I was all set to forget they existed when I heard the first single, “Honestly.” The verse was awash with echoing guitars and that voice – nothing special. But when the chorus bludgeoned me with a rush of multi-tracked guitars whisked along by a melodic undercurrent unheard since at least Mellon Collie, I was intrigued.
As it turns out, maybe Corgan shouldn’t through in the towel just yet. Mary Star of the Sea doesn’t come close to SP’s best work, but it absolutely obliterates everything Corgan has done since Mellon Collie. The first five songs on the album are enough to make you think that maybe he can reduplicate his past: the glorious riff of “Lyric” and the contagious shimmer of “Declarations of Faith” are that good. When the acoustic slush of “Of a Broken Heart” appear, though, you realize that it won’t get quite that good. I’ve never been a fan of Corgan’s gushy acoustic work – even at its best (“Disarm”), it sounds like filler between the guitar rave-ups. So it’s no surprise that the missteps Zwan makes are with “Of a Broken Heart” and “Heartsong.”
The guitar songs, however, are awfully good. “Ride a Black Swan” and “Endless Summer” both incite an ecstatic blood rush of guitar solos and big rhythms. “Baby Let’s Rock” may be lyrically misguided, but it still sounds huge, and that alone makes it pretty listenable. Speaking of lyrics, those have unfortunately not made the same recovery the guitars have. Mellon Collie was a watershed of turbulent gothic poetry, wrought with religion and alienation, and it’s still Corgan’s peak. The man sounds a lot happier now, which is fine, but it doesn’t lend itself to the same kind of genius he espoused on Mellon Collie. Nonetheless, the vocals are buried in enough glorious guitar swirls to make listening worth your while.
Corgan and the rest of Zwan save their best battle for the end. “Jesus I/Mary Star of the Sea” is a masterstroke. The first part is a reworking of the religious staple “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken.” It’s pretty nice, for what it is, but leave it to the colossally egotistical Corgan to pick the religious song in which he can chant “God and Heaven are all my own.” The real fun begins after the reworking, however. An instrumental break ushers in a little bit of tension, easing the listener to just this side of Slint. But then the song erupts into a chorus of sustain and distortion, with Corgan repeating “Everything just feels like rain.” It’s massive, glorious, cathartic, and historical all in one blast. For four or five minutes, it’s 1992.
So even though Mary Star of the Sea carries the burden of some poor lyrics, some awful cover art (how do you think his goth fans are going to conscience this one?), and some arrangement missteps, it’s Corgan’s strongest material since Mellon Collie. For however egotistical and misguided Corgan can get, he is still one of the premier guitar players of the last decade, and he has songwriting prowess to back it up. There are very few artists on this planet who can make indie elitism look foolish with a guitar tone. And Corgan’s one of them, voice be damned.