We lost Billy Corgan long ago and he's never coming back. Give it up. The day he donned his black frock, the Smashing Pumpkins were officially over. Sure, there were a few noteworthy singles, but the albums were nothing more than mediocrity dashed with a few tossed-off moments of genius. And we were all left wondering what could have been. Of all the grunge bands to come and go, few would disagree that the Smashing Pumpkins stretched the genre to its creative limits--incorporating neat atmospheric touches and a distinctly British penchant for effects pedals. American rock radio was a better and more adventurous place when Corgan was at his Siamese Dream-era peak.
But then one day Corgan put down the bowl and decided to trade it all in for a shot at pop-rock glory. The neo-hippie traded in his slacker cool for a goth wardrobe and pristine studio polish. Few could accuse Corgan of selling out, since he always made unabashedly commercial music, but there was something desperate about his new approach. His songwriting became increasingly self-conscious. Whereas songs like "Today" and "Rocket" sounded almost like accidental hits, the Pumpkins' later work was coldly calculated. Singles like "Stand Inside Your Love" and "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" seemed genetically engineered to reap maximum profit.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, Corgan himself looked increasingly soulless--highlighted by the shaved head and ghostly complexion. In interviews, he took to blaming his slumping sales on a fickle, imagined audience, who traded their rock 'n' roll for pop icons like Britney Spears. He also seemed plagued by delusions of grandeur, making his final major label-released effort a thoroughly convoluted concept album entitled Machina/The Machines of God. Good Lord. What happened? Where had the head-in-the-clouds daydreamer with the big guitars gone?
The Pumpkins finally ended their run in 2000 with a couple of farewell dates in their hometown of Chicago. I could have gone and certainly would have jumped at the chance a few years earlier, but the thought of seeing Corgan whining his way through the deeper Machina and Adore cuts was all the convincing I needed to stay home and watch Simpsons reruns. Besides, how long could such an egomaniac like Billy Corgan really stay out of the spotlight? Surely this wasn't going to be the last opportunity to see Billy Corgan onstage.
Of course, I was right. In the three years since Corgan exited stage left, we've been inundated with Pumpkins nostalgia pieces and reminders of his existence. First we got a double album of self-released material entitled Machina II, then a cameo on the new studio album from New Order, followed by a greatest hits package and a collection of live cuts from the Pumpkins' '88-'93 heyday. Not too bad for a man on hiatus.
As if that weren't enough, Corgan was busy assembling a new chapter, a band now simply known simply as Zwan. This indie supergroup of sorts included the former Pumpkins drummer, Jimmy Chamberlin, and added former Chavez guitarist Matt Sweeney, former Slint and Papa M guitarist Dave Pajo, and A Perfect Circle bassist Paz Lenchantin. Corgan spent the better part of '02 introducing the star-studded collective to the world with a series of short regional tours. Most who attended were awed by the thunderous three-guitar attack and Corgan's epic new songs--songs that reportedly favored brawn and volume over the Machina Pumpkins' pop-leaning template.
Finally, after a short bidding war (won by Reprise), we have the proper debut album from Corgan's new incarnation, entitled Mary Star of the Sea. And the real shocker here is how little has changed with all the upheaval of the past three years. The candied pop that characterized much of the Pumpkins' later work is still out in full force. And Corgan's nasal timbre floats high above the guitars--in sharp contrast to Gish and Siamese Dream, where his voice was barely audible beneath the jet-engine hum of feedback. In fact, if anything (and much to the chagrin of this writer), Corgan has swung closer to mainstream pop-rock than ever before. The instrumental sections are almost never more than punctuation marks. The solos never stray far from the choruses, and Corgan himself seems downright subdued.
The album gets an auspicious enough start with "Lyric"--a bouncy cut that plays nicely off the vocal contributions of Lenchantin. But it's hard not to note the passing similarity to the opener from Machina--"The Everlasting Gaze." "Lyric" wisely takes the rhythm down a notch and turns the chorus into a fun romp rather than a claustrophobic wash of guitars. Unfortunately, it's a feat that proves to be the exception rather than the rule. While the songs are brighter than before, there's an unmistakable familiarity to the proceedings. Corgan reverts back to Machina territory, as if his publicist forgot to forward him the negative press that followed the Pumpkins' 2000 flop. The songs labor beneath layers and layers of studio gloss. See exhibits A and B: the misnamed "Baby, Let's Rock!" and the overstuffed turkey "Jesus I / Mary Star of the Sea." At over 14 minutes, the latter recalls Corgan at the height of Machina self-indulgence, specifically the bloated, proggy epic "Glass and the Ghost Children." When Corgan isn't summoning the ghosts of Machina past, he's busy riding the pithiest hooks of his career. The acoustic-based "Of a Broken Heart" and "Heartsong" are the worst offenders, mainly because the spare arrangements make their flimsiness frighteningly apparent.
There are fleeting moments that serve as reminders of Corgan's skillful juxtaposition of melody and abstraction. "Endless Summer" wonderfully brings its title to life--evoking warm summer afternoons in the shade. The light, breezy mood also suits "El Sol," which allows Corgan to flex his guitar chops and lets Chamberlin run wild with the rhythm. Yet there's still something vaguely artificial about it all. Some of that feeling is certainly due to the slick production, but there's a strange undercurrent of bitterness as well, as if Corgan hasn't quite forgiven the fans for turning their collective back on his former band. Perhaps that's why he so resolutely sticks to an aesthetic that should have been discarded with the breakup of the Pumpkins. It's as if he's out to prove that he was right and we were wrong. But by belaboring his point, Mary Star of the Sea suffers an unfortunate fate. Corgan may have fashioned a new identity, but he can't--or refuses to --wipe away the memories.