You've probably read a few reviews by now that try to make the case that "Mary Star of the Sea", the first release from Billy Corgan's new band Zwan, isn't a Smashing Pumpkins record, that despite the retention of Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, the addition of Paz Lenchantin (bass, formerly of A Perfect Circle), Matt Sweeney (guitar, Chavez), and David Pajo (guitar, Tortoise) sets Zwan apart from Corgan's former brainchild. I've heard a lot of talk about how this album is more band-focused than the Pumpkins discs were, that it doesn't adhere as strictly to Corgan's singular musical vision as the Pumpkins did, and that the presence of these new musicians acts as a catalyst the produces something entirely new.
Pay no attention to those reviews. This is a Pumpkins record, pure and simple, or perhaps more accurately, it is a Billy Corgan record, just as all of the releases by the Smashing Pumpkins were Billy Corgan records. Of the 15 songs (there are only 14 tracks, but "Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea" joins two songs together in an extended jam), ten are written by Corgan alone, three are traditional, and the other two are some combination of Zwan members (which includes Corgan in both cases).
But it's not just the songwriting credits that make this a Corgan disc: the sound, the style, and the production will all be extremely familiar to anyone who has ever heard a Smashing Pumpkins song before. The wall-of-sound guitars, Chamberlain's unique way of making extremely complex drum patterns and rhythms sound almost minimalistic (he may be the best rock drummer ever, with the possible exception of the Police's Stewart Copeland), and Corgan's nasal whine are all present and accounted for, creating the classic sound that the Smashing Pumpkins rarely deviated from. It's not that these other musicians are deadweight (in fact, given the indie cred that each of them bring to the project, I suspect they were chosen at least partially to give Zwan a little pre-release buzz in the music press), it's just the reality of the situation that Corgan is the most important man in the room; it's his band, and if you're not willing to get with his program, it's probably best if you if you take your talents elsewhere.
Which isn't a negative comment about the record, unless you happened to hate the Smashing Pumpkins (in which case you should ignore the four stars on this review). "Mary Star of the Sea" is a worthy successor to "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" and "Siamese Dream", the Pumpkins two biggest (and best) records from the grunge-era 90s. "Mary" is the record Corgan might have made to follow up "Mellon Collie" if, instead of having to deal with the death of a touring member of the Pumpkins from an overdose, the firing and rehiring of Chamberlain as a result of his own substance abuse problems, the slowly dying fame of his once world-conquering band, and his failed attempts to explore the then-trendy techno, Corgan had instead met the girl of his dreams. This is the record that the faithful have been waiting for since 1995.
The attitude on "Mary" is different than any of the Pumpkins releases. It is a jubilant, euphoric record, reflecting the world as seen through the eyes of a man who is in love again for the first time in years, a man who has rediscovered the joy of making music through that love. In "Mary", Corgan has crafted a disc that takes the pure bliss of a track like "Today" and extends it across an entire album without ever becoming annoying. Gone are the existential cynicism and doubt that were ongoing lyrical themes in Corgan's work with the Pumpkins; in their place is optimism and belief, not just in god, but in love, which end up being one and the same.
Corgan doesn't waste any time bringing us into his happiness. From the opening notes of the first track, "Lyric", you can feel his elation at writing new songs with a new band: he's leaving behind all the baggage of a bad relationship, and bringing all the good parts of himself to his new paramour. Even on the more subdued, acoustic guitar-oriented tracks ("Of a Broken Heart", "Heartsong", "Desire"), there is a contentment underlying the despair, like he's looking back on his sadness with the knowledge that his pain is part of what led him to where he is today, and where he is today is pretty fucking great. In another incarnation, the tongue-in-cheek psychedic headbanger "Baby Let's Rock!" (the first time Corgan has been able to laugh at himself in years) and the obligatory extended jam "Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea" (combining two traditional Christian hymns in a fourteen minute opus) could have been self-indulgent throwaways, but Corgan's newfound approach to music and life infuses the whole record with such energy that these two tracks are as eagerly anticipated as the obvious candidates for singledom. There isn't a single cut that makes you want to reach for the skip button, and that's probably the best indicator that you've got a classic album on your hands.
This is Corgan's finest work in years, and it may be his most consistent work ever. You get the feeling he's finally stopped caring about being cool and cutting edge and regaining whatever it was that the Pumpkins had at the apex of their popularity: he's happy just being Billy again, making music that he loves. Fans can only hope that in his future voyages with Zwan, Corgan allows "Mary Star of the Sea" to guide him.