The Smashing Pumpkins are reborn in Billy Corgan’s religiously-centered new record

Billy Corgan had, at the height of his Smashing Pumpkins fame in the mid-’90s, promised longtime friend Matt Sweeney, then a guitarist in New Jersey’s punk group Skunk, that someday they would form a band that was stripped of all pretense just to see if they could start untainted all over again. Corgan reportedly never got used to the idea of fame and the dissolution of the band in 2000 took many fans by complete surprise.

But Corgan kept his promise to Sweeney, and Zwan was born in 2001. Corgan brought back ex-Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, David Pajo from Papa M and most recently bassist Paz Lenchantin, formerly of A Perfect Circle. In the year and a half since the quintet started touring, the band has kept the project under the radar of even die-hard Pumpkins fans. Additionally contributing to their blessed anonymity is the fact that the mass media has, for the most part, left Corgan alone to explore his craft in as much privacy as is possible for a singer whose albums have routinely gone multi-platinum.

However, the band has developed a tendency to sell out obscure shows in low-capacity clubs across the U.S. in the past few months. Word of mouth has prevailed, and bootlegs of their intimate gigs have flooded peer-to-peer (P2P) networks – replete with screaming fanatics professing eternal love for Corgan. These bootlegs have sustained Corgan’s initiates, but for many fans, the wait for the new band’s first studio release was interminable. Finally, the band has emerged from months of recording with Mary Star of the Sea, which debuted at number three on this week’s Billboard charts, moving 90,000 copies in its first few days.

Corgan, who wrote all the music for Mary Star of the Sea, obviously recognized the success of his Pumpkins formula, and many of the songs on the album sound gloriously like a sequel to 2000’s MACHINA/the machines of God. Chamberlin’s technically decadent rhythms and Corgan’s unmistakable voice pick up with Zwan precisely where they left off with the Pumpkins. Gone are the intense orchestrations of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, but what characterizes Mary Star of the Sea is the lo-fi trinity of guitars played by Sweeney, Corgan and Pajo. Each was accustomed to playing lead axe in their former incarnations, but in Zwan they come together to share riffs like recipes.

“Lyric,” which has been enjoying the first vestiges of popularity on FM radio along with “Honestly” and “Settle Down,” kicks off the album on a spiritual high note. “Here comes my faith to carry me on,” Corgan launches in the opening line. Songs such as “Declarations of Faith” and “Jesus, I” indicate Corgan’s increasing fixation with the ideas of redemption and transcendence, and many of his newest lyrics are outright religiously contemplative. On “Jesus, I,” Corgan chants “Reborn / reborn / reborn / reborn” as the music blazes into an impassioned soaring melody, which simmers down into a 4-minute instrumental leading into “Mary Star of the Sea.”

The back-to-basics method driving the album comes charging through on tracks like “Of a Broken Heart.” Corgan intones, “Let’s see you smile / ’cause I’m not impressed with your loneliness” in this soulful ballad. The track, easily the most extraordinary of the album, inspires longing with a simple chord progression and enchanting reverberating melody.

Admittedly, the lyrics of many songs seem sacrificed for the music. Mary Star of the Sea occasionally falters when paring luscious sounds with weak lyrical content, frequently marked by repetition. The song “Yeah!” features a chorus of the word “yeah” ad infinitum, and “El Sol” ends with “Sunshine / sunshine / sunshine / and some tea / that’s all I wanted / it’s all I wanted / that’s all I wanted / it’s all I wanted.” These songs sound fundamentally concerned with the feel of the music and less with the ideas behind it. Corgan’s uniquely nasal voice at these times becomes an instrument from which a particular sound is summoned.

Curiously, the wealth of bootlegs available on P2P networks indicate a wealth of crowd-pleasers that apparently ended up on the cutting room floor. “Glorious” and “Love Lies in Ruin” perhaps felt too unfinished to make the album’s short list, but are worthy downloads.

Mary Star of the Sea seems in many ways to be analogous to Corgan’s struggle with spirituality in the face of overwhelming celebrity. It is first and foremost an album that strives for transcendence through simplicity, devoid of any posturing for fame. Corgan and the others seem above these concerns and instead focus solely on the music that they produce – and the effect is simply smashing.