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April 2003 Pick of the Month

Mary Star of the Sea
Artist: Zwan
Label: Reprise
Length: 14 Tracks, 65:50 minutes
It’s an interesting trend. You could see it in Eddie Vedder’s lyrics on the latest Pearl Jam record, Riot Act. Then Chris Cornell seemed to have found it with Audioslave. Now Billy Corgan, legendary front-man for that other grunge-affiliated super-group of the 90’s, Smashing Pumpkins, appears to have found it too in the music of his new band Zwan. Tell me, what’s with all these former dysfunctional generation poster-boys finding God? 

I admit I was never a huge fan of the Smashing Pumpkins. While I still love hearing their ‘classics’ (barely ten years old, mind you) from Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness on the radio; “Cherub Rock,” “Today,” “Disarm,” “Zero,” “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “Tonight Tonight,” “1979”; it was never enough to inspire me to buy an album. Still, I roomed next to enough rabid Pumpkins fans at school to understand their vibe. While the music was mosh-worthy, Corgan’s lyrics struck me as being clearly not seriously occupied with things eternal. 

I noted with passing the Pumpkin’s descent into the morbid plodding of the albums Adore and Machina: The Machines of God. Watching a bald Corgan destroy guitars and amps on the video for “Everlasting Gaze” and singing through his nose about the “fickle fascination of an everlasting God” didn’t do anything to change my perceptions. He was, in my opinion, a poser whose lyrics said little to address the human condition beyond a ‘f***-you’ attitude and sounding second-rate to boot. I was not surprised when the band broke up soon after. 

However, with _Mary Star of the Sea_ now spinning daily in my CD player, I’m wondering from where in heaven did Zwan fall? Rounding out Corgan’s troupe of musos are fellow ex-Pumpkin drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, Paz Lenchantin (borrowed from A Perfect Circle) for bass and some sweet backing vocals, plus David Pajo and Matt Sweeney on guitars - both longtime friends of Billy’s from some more obscure bands. 

The deliberately ‘hippie’ cover suggests the album is going to be a 70’s style love-in rock fest. In this it doesn’t disappoint, but I struggle for adjectives that won’t sound as corny as that. I’ll try. Zwan is happy; it’s refreshing, it’s catchy, it’s rockin’, it’s playful, it’s camp, it’s sweet, it’s lovey-dovey … and amazingly, so much of it is positive about God. So much so, that some Smashing Pumpkins fans in web chat rooms are asking, “Are Zwan a Christian band?” It’s the wrong question of course, but you can understand their suspicions. The music, while still decidedly alternative rock, is a distinct departure from the angry negativity of the former band’s repertoire. 

The album opens with Corgan singing, “Here comes my faith to carry me on,” then continues with a bridge and verse expressing commitment and love to a partner in beautiful, almost godly imagery. Track two, “Settle Down” continues that same theme. In “Declaration of Faith,” Corgan sings “I declare myself of faith,” and sums up, “Maybe we were born to love each other.” 

It goes on. The first single “Honestly” lives up to its name with the words “I believe you mean the best that life can bring, I believe in it all,” and boasts perhaps the catchiest chorus of the year so far. Following the acoustic lilt of “A Broken Heart,” track seven, “Ride a Black Swan” gets deep again over an uplifting, driving pop-rock melody. It’s worth quoting several lines of it here: 

A white horse picks my dreams up, to take my hopes to God
My prayers have nestled brightly, to dim my sense of awe
I want you to be someone I can’t deny. A house of fire. 
I want you to be something I realize. 
As the world goes round, it’s got me thinking 
That the things I want just keep me sinking down
Remove my spirit from darkness, love become my heaven
As the world goes round with our love
I want you to be my message. I want you to be my friend
I want you to be that answer, an answer I must defend
I want us to solve our distrust of everyone and trust in God
I want us to solve our distrust of who we are. 
The great songs continue through “Heartsong,” “Endless Summer,” “Baby Let’s Rock!” and “Yeah!” to “Desire” which addresses itself to the ‘northern star’ (Mary perhaps?) saying “Please enlighten the lost prayers of my soul.” As such, there is not much on this album that would not garner high rotation on pop radio, with each song having some melodic highlight that sticks to your brain like a well-sucked lollipop. The only exception to this rule is perhaps the astonishing 14-minute rock epic “Jesus, I / Mary Star of the Sea,” which in itself, however, is another masterpiece of spiritual reflection. 
Jesus, I’ve taken my cross, all to leave and follow thee
I’m destitute, despised, forsaken all to leave and follow thee
Man may trouble to distress me, to drive my heart to the cross
I’m resolute, reviled, forsaken, all to leave and follow thee…
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Reborn, Reborn, Reborn, Reborn…
So perish every fond ambition, God and trouble are all I’ve known
Yet how rich is my condition, God and heaven are all my own
I find it hard to connect the hymn-like lyrics of this song with the same voice that once sung, “God is empty, just like me “ but it’s definitely Billy Corgan. There is plenty of his crazy wah-guitar soloing and distortion throughout to convince me that this was once the head Pumpkin, but it’s like he died and rose to new life with Zwan. The bonus DVD that comes with some editions of this album even features a Zwan version of the old spiritual song, “God’s Gonna Set This World on Fire”. Where God would have previously been sung about with a sneer, he now seems to be firmly embraced and celebrated. I’m perplexed, but simultaneously enraptured. 

The excerpts above are only a taste of the exceptional lyrical quality of this debut album from Zwan. The music sounds like a band set free, making great melodies to be played loud while driving down the highway on a summer’s day. Despite all Corgan’s past rage, it seems the rat has been freed from the cage.

Brendan Boughen 3/4/2003



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