January 30, 2003

And Zwan Means What?

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It’s a great thing when a much-loved artist returns to form after some time of sub-par output. For me, there couldn’t be a better feeling than seeing Billy Corgan back on top again. Sure, he can be an egotistical little fuck, but the Smashing Pumpkins provided me with some of my favorite music in my teenage years, and I still look back fondly on most of their very diverse and worthwhile catalog. Of course, their dismal last album, Machina/The Machines of God, ensured that most of their fanbase wouldn’t be all that disappointed when they broke up, and in the meantime Corgan has been nearly forgotten as his peculiar brand of melancholy but inventive rock has gone out of vogue in favor of the more straightforward angst proffered by grunge revivalists.

But ever since the Pumpkins’ breakup, Corgan’s first post-Pumpkins musical project Zwan has been one of the most mysterious and intriguing bands in the background of the mainstream. Playing countless live shows and quickly building up a known repertoire of over 60 songs, Zwan has aroused a lot of curiosity from Pumpkins fans anxious to see what everyone’s favorite bald-headed vampire would do next. This curiosity was only intensified by the group’s promising lineup: Corgan was joined by his Pumpkins foil Jimmy Chamberlain, plus Chavez guitarist Matt Sweeney, Chicago multi-instrumentalist David Pajo (who played with Slint and Tortoise and has released solo material as Aerial M and Papa M), and A Perfect Circle bassist Paz Lezenchin.

A lyrically sappy, musically jubilant single called “Honestly” provided the first recorded calling card for Corgan’s new outfit, and upon hearing the full fruit of Zwan’s first album, Mary Star of the Sea, it proves to be a fitting indication of Zwan’s sound. The majority of the album sticks close to the formula set by “Honestly,” eschewing sludgy, mopey rock in favor of a bright, ecstatically radio-friendly approach. Corgan is at his most romantic and straightforward here, which means that the lyrics mostly suck (big surprise, huh?), but in most cases his overwrought evocations of love are completely overshadowed by the sheer bouncy joy of the music.

Corgan has always been capable of writing big-sounding power ballads — there were a few scattered across nearly every Pumpkins record — but never before has he delivered an entire album of them. The effect is intoxicating; Mary Star of the Sea is a veritable candy store of sweet melodies and reaching-for-the-stars guitar excess. It’s wonderfully exciting, not because it’s anything new (it’s not), but because it’s the first time in a long time that mainstream rock has delivered anything so unabashedly poppy, happy, and celebratory.

From start to finish, this album is relentlessly upbeat and melodious. The opener “Lyric” recalls the few poppier tunes from Machina, with Sweeney, Corgan, and Pajo providing some beautiful interlocking guitars. Throughout the album, the three guitarists are the life of these songs; their melodic playing ebbs and flows from chiming pastoral brightness to explosions of dense soloing. Chamberlain’s drumming is in similarly fine form, reacting to his musical surroundings as deftly as he did in the Pumpkins. And Corgan’s voice has become more subdued again, losing a few of the more annoying tics he’d picked up by Machina; he sounds younger and happier here than he has since Gish. When he’s joined by Paz on harmonies, Zwan becomes the pop group that the Pumpkins always hinted they could be.

The album charges by quickly, an hour gone before you even realize it. Even the 14-minute “Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea,” which on the surface promised to be an excessively maudlin Machina outtake, is excellent, building slowly from Corgan’s initial sincere promises to God, before exploding into a massive orgy of frenzied soloing that recalls classic Pumpkins epics like their infamous live readings of “Silverfuck.”

The few moments when the album stumbles are inevitably the ones where the band slows down the pace. Ballads like “Of a Broken Heart” and the incredibly corny “Heartsong” are too mushy and simplistic for their own good, and the low-key music can’t cover up Corgan’s insipid Hallmark-isms (“let love confess to you what you must do,” he sings on the latter). Elsewhere, the singer gets away with even more egregiously lame lyrics simply on the strength of the music’s bombast. His downright puzzling verses on “Baby Let’s Rock!” will doubtless go completely overlooked because the song itself is such a nicely put-together slice of start-stop guitar antics.

As these pop nuggets fly by, the last thing you’ll be thinking about is the intelligence of the lyrics. It’s all such a rare treat of pure rock n’ roll euphoria, the joy of each guitar solo coming out of the speakers loud and clear. This is just the kind of jolt that the mainstream needs right now, as radio rock is dominated by suburban angst and guitar rockers who can’t seem to do more than growl, play minor chords, and pose angrily. It’s ironic that Billy Corgan, who was perhaps more responsible than anyone for entrenching angst in the mainstream, should be the one to bring back an old-fashioned pop sensibility. But that just makes it even more pleasurable.

Archived article by Ed Howard