The last time he was round these parts Billy Corgan looked, to be honest, a bit of a lost cause. Presiding over the last rites of The Smashing Pumpkins, he styled himself as a goth-metal high priest who’d sacrificed his talent in favour of pretension. The Pumpkins‘ farewell tour scrolled on interminably, but when it was over, the suspicion was that Corgan would never trouble sane listeners again.
A couple of years on, though, Corgan has done some usefully weird things. For a start, he’s toured as back-up guitarist for New Order in a gesture of unexpected fanboy humility. Now he’s formed Zwan with an impressive selection of musicians mostly removed from the industrial metal world he so recently inhabited. Joining Corgan and Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, then, are Paz Lenchantin, bassist in A Perfect Circle and a Queens Of The Stone Age associate; guitarist Matt Sweeney, once of post-hardcore types Chavez, more recently a sideman for Bonnie Prince Billy and Catpower; and, intriguingly, the patron saint of post-rock David Pajo, who’s figured in Slint, Tortoise and Royal Trux as well as his own fine Papa M.
So has Corgan abandoned stadium bombast for the humble allure of lo-fi? Well, of course not. ‘Mary Star Of The Sea’ is grandiose, anthemic and rarely troubled by either subtlety or overt experimentation. It’s also, though, very good, by some distance the best record this gifted miscreant has made since 1993’s ‘Siamese Dream’.
Stories of Zwan being a democratic creative unit are, predictably, disingenuous. These are blatantly Corgan’s songs, and to prove it he announces, “Whatever I can do, I will, ‘cos I’m good like that,” as early as the second song, ‘Settle Down’. But his garlanded collaborators have clearly had some positive effects. Sure, ‘Mary Star Of The Sea’ is founded in big old-fashioned rock, but much of the pomp has been trimmed away to expose Corgan at his sunniest and most pop-friendly. There’s precious little whingeing, either. Where once he sounded tortured, occasionally garotted, now Corgan is practically jolly, even sweet. ‘Honestly’ and ‘Declarations Of Faith’ are bounding, near-giddy love songs, while ‘Endless Summer’ and ‘Baby Let’s Rock!’ (a virtual homage to glam dinosaurs Mott The Hoople) are as ecstatically cheesy as the titles suggest.
The music, too, is great. The tunes draw on the kind of cruising FM rock classics Corgan sourced for ‘Today’ and ‘1979’. This time, though, they’re underpinned by a dense thicket of guitars that occasionally, fantastically, suggest all Pajo’s old mates and a couple of Corgan’s were deconstructing their stereotypes in the studio down the corridor. Even the contractual-obligation epic, ‘Jesus, I/ Mary Star Of The Sea’, is a worthwhile 15 minutes, starting off as an imitation of Spiritualized‘s deep space blues before spiralling into a showcase for the three guitarists’ contrasting stuntplay.
“Baby I’m the greatest thing you’ve got,” Corgan grins on ‘Baby Let’s Rock!’ and, for the first time in nearly a decade, his egotism seems justified. ‘Mary Star Of The Sea’ has that kind of miracle-working effect: a euphoric and consistent hour of genetically-tweaked stadium rock that re-establishes Billy Corgan as a great, rather than ridiculous, frontman. Who’d have thought?