Introducing The Sonic Vault; in which your tireless critic dives into the past for records which have in some way defined his music obsessions. The first album up for discussion is Billy Corgan's post-Smashing Pumpkins side-project Zwan and their 2003 release Mary, Star of the Sea.
Mary, Star of the Sea
Year of release: 2003
The 1990's were a decade defined by the self-righteous rock star. From the flannel-wearing slacker turned grunge hero Kurt Cobain to the drug-addled excess of Scott Weiland, it was the last time in recent memory where a single personality could sell a movement. If the aughts have seen the idea of the rock star being supplanted to hip-hop artists like Kayne West, then the 90's were the final gasp of (mostly) white men doing their best deity pose while cranking out guitar solos. Billy Corgan was perhaps the apex of this trend; with The Smashing Pumpkins becoming arguably the most successful band to come out of the alt-rock scene. Corgan, too, was something of a ego-driven believer in his own mythos as a rock n'roll savior. However, this mythos, like most deriving from hubris, soon became laughable once the man reached middle age. Similar to beat poet frontman Jim Morrison, Corgan was someone who earnestly bought into his own hyped genius. Still, the fact that the Pumpkins were able to crank out more than one classic record should not be minimized, even as Corgan often downplayed the artistic merits of his own bandmates in order to elevate himself.
This is all to say that before eventually reforming the Pumpkins in 2005, there was this little album called Mary, Star of the Sea under the Zwan moniker that pretty much came and went. It should be noted that the record was a financial flop upon its 2003 release, and that tumultuous in-fighting (which Corgan bitched about in some damning interviews) led to the group breaking up just as quickly as they had appeared. Still, Mary, Star of the Sea is a legitimately fantastic listen; more pop-oriented than anything Corgan had done up until that point, with melodies and hooks for days. Essentially a supergroup featuring guitarist David Pajo (of Slint), guitarist Matt Sweeny, bassist Paz Lenchantin (of A Perfect Circle), and Pumpkins stalwart drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, the first impression is just how upbeat the music comes across. What happened? Had Billy traded in his black Gothic robes and snarling angst for optimistic love songs?
"If the final years of the Pumpkins had seen drug abuse, delusions of grandeur, and in the case of 2000's Machina, critical and commercial disaster, then Zwan seems to have been a way of resurrecting a more youthful sense of purpose..."
Thematically, the album trades in the self-pitying gloom of past Corgan dirges for spiritual renewal and, umm, yes "love." There's a certain cheesiness to Mary, Star of the Sea which uses shimmery guitar chords, backup female vocals, wailing solos, and intricate drumming in a way not dissimilar to some of the dopey grandiosity of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. If the final years of the Pumpkins had seen drug abuse, delusions of grandeur, and in the case of 2000's Machina, critical and commercial disaster, then Zwan seems to have been a way of resurrecting a more youthful sense of purpose. Never mind that Corgan was in his late 30's at the time. Mary, Star of the Sea is still a glorious throwback to the simplicity and anthemic songwriting of 1993's Siamese Dream.
All this talk of the Pumpkins is inevitable since Zwan, despite the integral achievements of the other band members, feels very much like a re-funneling of Corgan's past. Sunny, bright, and pop-friendly, the bulk of the album's 14 songs are like spinning the dial through 90's FM radio and landing on a series of head-bobbing hits. Though there a few clunkers in the track list ("Baby, Let's Rock", "Settle Down"), the majority of the music here crafts a mood of lazy summertime bliss with the occasional overdub, Chamberlin's herculean drumming, and a squealing guitar solo.
Lyrically, Corgan still waxes about religious zeal and messiah complexes, but the cosmic "bigness" of such things were paired down into stadium-friendly rock with hints of actual emotion. Lost loves. Romantic yearning. Spiritual uplift. It's all here in spades. On "Declarations of Faith", Billy sings, Maybe we were born to kiss another/Maybe we were born to run forever/Maybe we were born to come together/Whatever, and the results are surprisingly touching. Elsewhere, the acoustic love ballad "Of a Broken Heart" and the keyboard-led "Desire" crackle with startling intimacy. Of course, Corgan just can't help himself and eventually gives into bombast with the 14-minute ”Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea”, a proggy detour into lumbering melodies and psychedelic noodling that nonetheless climaxes rather spectacularly. Seems like even a wayward soul can revert to overzealous proclamations. For better or worse, the guy had never been one for subtlety.
Mary, Star of the Sea is the kind of album that reminds one of the scattered brilliance Corgan once yielded during his early to mid 90's heyday. It's less bombastic than a Pumpkins record, but still manages to have those nuggets of pop melody and distinctive guitar tones that became staples of the decade's sound. It now feels like something of a lost treasure; relegated to the post-Pumpkins downfall of Corgan's career slide into self-parody. In truth, it is easily the best thing he has made since Siamese Dream, and nothing since (including his revamped Pumpkins output), even comes close to approximating the grand melodies and concise songwriting on display here. If the days of the self-righteous rock star are indeed a thing of the past, then we can still remember fondly the days when prophet Billy stopped whining and decided to smile.