Home Read Classic Album Review: Zwan | Mary Star Of The Sea

Classic Album Review: Zwan | Mary Star Of The Sea

Billy Corgan goes from Zero to hero with his post-Pumpkins supergroup’s debut.

This came out in 2003 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):


The two questions I’ve been asked more than once about Billy Corgan’s new band Zwan are: 1) What the heck does Zwan mean? and 2) Do they sound like Smashing Pumpkins? To which I can only reply: 1) Your guess is as good as mine, and 2) Well, duh!

Of course Zwan sound like Corgan’s old band. Why wouldn’t they? At first glance, at least, it seems like they’ve been constructed from the old Pumpkins blueprint. At centre stage you’ve got Corgan, whose nasal bray, swirling guitar curlicues and grand romanticism are still the cornerstones of his style. Behind him you’ve got Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, turning in his usual jazzbo beats and fussy snare tattoos. You’ve got the female bassist (Paz Lenchantin, poached from A Perfect Circle) and the dark, quiet lead guitarist (David Pajo). You’ve got college-rock cred — Pajo was in influential post-rock bands Slint and Tortoise, while third guitarist Matt Sweeney is an alum of equally obscure and beloved Chavez — co-existing with radio-friendly hooks and choruses. So, you might ask, why not just call them the Smashing Returns and be done with it?

Well, to get the answer to that one, you’ll have to listen to Mary Star Of The Sea, the band’s impressive, spiritually rich debut album. And it won’t take you long to realize that aside from those superficial and obvious similarities, Zwan aren’t just the second crop of Pumpkins. They’re a different band with a radical new approach. In a nutshell, here it is: They sound like they’re enjoying themselves.

Yes, even Billy. Especially Billy, in fact. Not so long ago, he was an angry young man in a Zero T-shirt. Despite all his rage, he was still just a rat in a cage. Now, he’s singing songs with titles like Endless Summer, Yeah! and Baby Let’s Rock — and pulling them off without sounding like a total dweeb. Maybe it’s the novelty of the new band. Or maybe he just prefers playing the upstart instead of the rock god. Or maybe he’s found God. Whatever. All I know is that on these 14 tracks, he sounds happier than he has in ages, with the melancholy and infinite sadness that poisoned his final years in the Pumpkins replaced by a renewed optimism and — dare I say? — joy.

Corgan has also lightened up on the musical front. The oppressive metal power and crushing post-grunge grandeur that the Pumpkins often used to bludgeon their fans have wisely been left behind. Here, despite the band’s three-guitar wall of sound and Corgan’s studio-wonk obsession with reverb, vibrato, phasing and digital delay, tracks like Lyric, Settle Down and Declarations of Faith are, at their core, straightforward pop singles with simple hummable melodies and addictive choruses. (Even the band’s grand late-set epic — the thundering glam-metal hymn Jesus, I / Mary Star of the Sea — manages to turn a heavy line like “God and heaven are all my own” into a singalong refrain.) By the time he implores, “Won’t you … come with me again?” over a strummy acoustic guitar and harmonica on the album’s closing track, you’ll have no trouble saying yes.

And you won’t care that you can make out the occasional echo of yesterday in these cuts. Despite what he said before, today, it seems, is really the greatest day Billy Corgan has ever known. Can’t wait for tomorrow.