Face facts, Pumpkinheads: Billy Corgan hasn’t made a decent record in a decade. Oh sure, he’s taken credit for one (Hole’s wildly underrated Celebrity Skin), and he’s played on at least one other (New Order’s 2001 comeback effort, Get Ready, which is really only halfway decent). But the last time he let fly with a great one was way back in 1993. That was the year Corgan and his fellow Smashing Pumpkins released the mighty Siamese Dream, the one unassailable album of their highly assailable careers.
Yep, that’s right: 1993. That would be the year of Liz Phair’s gender-bent masterpiece Exile in Guyville; Nirvana’s difficult third record, In Utero; and Yo La Tengo’s lover’s-rock opus, Painful. Icing-on-the-cake-wise, it was also the first year of our Lord Bill Clinton’s presidency, and Axl, sweet Axl…Well, let’s just say he had yet to meet a certain someone named Buckethead. Great spirits then on Earth were sojourning. Obviously.
But Corgan wasn’t exactly one of them. The Pumpkins’ arena-ready grunge-pop didn’t fit in with your indie world, but that, in part, was the source of its genius. With the likes of most of the above gumming up college radio with their what-me-practice? work ethic, it was hard not to be charmed by a classic-rock geek like Corgan, one who clearly worshipped at the altar of Thurston but could, whenever the spirit moved him, also play like freakin’ Yngwie. Plus, for one album anyway, Corgan wrote the songs that made the whole world sing. Siamese Dream wasn’t exactly original in that department (see Cheap Trick and Sonic Youth for proof), but who needs originality when you’ve got shreddage as casually blistering as “Today”? Or “Cherub Rock”? Or “Disarm”?
What a difference a decade makes—which is exactly why no one should be expecting much from Corgan’s new outfit, Zwan. The past 10 years of Billydom have been a long, boring trip—not to mention a pretentious, overwrought, and melodramatic one. True, those qualities were sometimes in evidence on Siamese Dream, what with Corgan’s unfortunate affection for prog rock occasionally rearing its ugly, bloated head. Since then, however, those problems have been compounded by tactical screw-ups: When every track you lay down is supposed to be epic (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness), deep (Adore), or angst-ridden (MACHINA/The Machines of God), well, darlin’, you’re bound to fail. Basically, in fact, you’re just askin’ to.
So the really great news about Zwan is that the band doesn’t seem hung up on greatness. One of the best songs on Mary Star of the Sea, the group’s fine debut, is called “Endless Summer.” Another one goes by the handle “Baby Let’s Rock!” Even better, both tracks make good on the blissfully empty promises of their titles. The former features at least 17 layers of hurts-so-good guitars (supplied by a three-guitarists lineup worthy of a Southern-rock band) and a refrain in which good boy Billy asks permission to go waste his time. The latter hits sniveling old nu metal right where it hurts: “You can bitch/You can cry/You can moan/But let’s rock!”
And unlike the Limp Bizkit/ Korn/P.O.D. axis of chuckleheads, that’s precisely what Zwan proceeds to do, right from the get-go of album-opener “Lyric.” It’s a swirling mass of tuneful guitars stitched together with ex-Perfect Circle-er Paz Lenchantin’s melodic bass line and former Pumpkin Jimmy Chamberlin’s rivet-punching percussion. And despite the poetic title, the words sound as if they had been culled from the margins of Corgan’s notebook, a random list of phrases perhaps jotted down next to that unflattering caricature of ex-Pumpkin D’Arcy: “A lyric, a time, a crusade, a line/One minute/A friend/A road without end.” Cryptic shorthand, in other words, designed to get your overanalytic head where it belongs: right between the speakers.
“El Sol” works a similar magic. A purported traditional that Zwan treats as a beach-party love song, the track features a closing-credits melody that should inspire Corgan’s fellow Chicagoan John Hughes to get back in the teen-film business. And the words are just too-cool-to-care ridiculous, with Corgan “feeling high” and looking for “a little sunshine just to butter my toast.” “Yeah!” follows suit, though this time the lyrics carry a faintly bitter whiff of music-biz blues: “So am I independent/Or am I just playing my own games?” Corgan huffs as the band gears up for another din, this one built on a nifty up-and-down guitar line and Chamberlin’s rat-tat-tat drum work. And though the 14:04 “Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea” is three times longer than it needs to be, the track’s first few rock-gospel minutes (another Zwan-ized traditional, apparently) are pure sonic salvation. It’s probably safe to say that no one’s made this glorious a noise unto the Lord since Spacemen 3 walked with Jesus back in 1986.
Of course, Zwan throws in the occasional slow-burner, too, just for change-of-pace purposes. “Of a Broken Heart” and “Heartsong” are a plaintive matched set, genuine Bic-flickers decked out with celestial melodies and loads of acoustic guitars. “So let’s count the miles together,” sings Corgan on the former, “until I die of a broken heart.” And though set-closer “Come With Me” ups the tempo a bit, it’s also a folky strumfest—right down to the honking harmonica riff that punctuates every verse.
Strong as Mary Star of the Sea is, though, there are a couple of sticking points. For one, Corgan’s nasally whine remains a difficult-to-acquire taste, even when it’s serving up some of the pithiest melodies of his career. For another, production-wise, the album is pretty well gussied up, with several layers (and layers and layers) of studio sheen separating listeners from these mostly very simple songs.
Then again, who cares? As current single “Honestly” proves, overproduction just means the stuff will sound terrific on the radio. And ultimately, for all its studio fussiness, Mary Star of the Sea is tossed-off in the best sense. Disposably wonderful, the disc asks nothing of you except, Could you turn it up a little louder, dude? So if you happen to drive a convertible with a decent sound system and a really good heater, consider yourself lucky: In the darkest depths of winter, Zwan has delivered an eaarly contender for the year’s best summertime album. CP