REWIND: It's 15 years since Billy Corgan from Smashing Pumpkins tried to convince the world he was happy 5 years ago

REWIND: It's 15 years since Billy Corgan from Smashing Pumpkins tried to convince the world he was happy

Remember Zwan?

You might not.


That's okay, it was kind of a came-and-went moment in the hazy musical landscape of 2003, when a determined - and strangely upbeat - Billy Corgan tried his damnedest to step out of the shadow of Smashing Pumpkins by heading up hot new supergroup Zwan.

Two-and-a-half years later, he would take out full-page ads in the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times noting that he had been planning on reforming the Pumpkins for at least a year before that point.

"I want my band back, and my songs, and my dreams," he passionately professed.

So yeah, Zwan didn't exactly set the world on fire. Their entire discography amounts to just one record - Mary Star of the Sea - and two singles; 'Honestly' and 'Lyric.'


The brief encounter boasted Corgan at the helm, alongside Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, guitarists David Pajo (Slint, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol) and Matt Sweeney (Iggy Pop, Jake Bugg), and bassist Paz Lenchantin (A Perfect Circle, Pixies).


Previously characterised as one of rock music's most overtly gloomy characters, Corgan embraced a shiny, happier side of his personality for Zwan's debut offering...

Is it good?


In the words of Grandpa Simpson; a little from column A, a little from column B.

Released on 28 January, 2003, Mary Star of the Sea certainly isn't great, and its good parts largely sound like - wait for it - Smashing Pumpkins.

It might be somewhat unfair to make the obvious comparison, but it really isn't just a case of Billy Corgan's signature catlike vocals distorting a fresh new sound, rather showcasing the kind of material he'd later tap into in solo form while still trading under the Pumpkins name.

Tone is the key defining factor here, with a much sunnier approach than usual at the forefront of just about every song.


Lead single 'Honestly' is pretty much the album in microcosm. 15 years on, it sounds as adequate and acceptable as it ever did, though the sight - and, indeed, sound - of Beamin' Billy is still a touch hard to swallow.

Clip via Warner Bros. Records

It's not as if every single Smashing Pumpkins song conjures up imagery and feelings of the downbeat variety, but even their most elated fare is peppered with knowing touches of melancholy - 'Perfect', the spiritual sequel to '1979', being one such notable example.

And yet, Happy Billy Corgan just doesn't seem right, nor does 'Honestly's immediate refrain of "I believe."


Coming from the man who famously declared that "God is empty, just like me," on 'Zero' and critiqued the "fickle fascination with an everlasting God" on 'The Everlasting Gaze' (absolute belter, by the way), this sudden, seemingly devout about-face is a hard sell, even when nestled inside a perfectly enjoyable pop song.

Even if it's just the classic case of feeling ensnared by another human being, it's still weird. Sorry, Billy.

Is it bad?

Mary Star of the Sea is many things, but an outright disaster isn't quite one of them.

That said, it's difficult to get behind the album as anything other than a passing distraction for Corgan, one that didn't especially challenge him all that much.

At its worst, Mary Star of the Sea is slight and forgettable, with several tracks leaving little to no impression at all.

When it hits, it leaves a mark.

'El Sol' is a gorgeous little gem of a song, building on a simple, driving melody and paying off with tiny, smartly-timed elevations, even if Chamberlain's beats sound like he didn't turn up for recording that day and Corgan replaced him with a drum machine for the second time.

Second single 'Lyric', meanwhile, is a decent stab at an R.E.M. impression, though that's probably not what Corgan was going for...

All in all, your classic mixed bag.

Clip via Warner Bros. Records

What did the critics think?

The dreaded 'mixed reviews' situation, though notices were generally quite positive.

At time of writing, Mary Star of the Sea enjoys a 79 out of 100 rating on Metacritic, based on 21 professional reviews.

Q Magazine awarded the album four stars, talking up a fresh start with major potential. Rolling Stone praised the surface appeal of the songs, noting that the direction worked for being less complicated than that of the Pumpkins.

Spin, meanwhile, lauded Corgan as "a control freak who actually knows what the fuck he's doing," while NME hailed "a euphoric and consistent hour of genetically-tweaked stadium rock that re-establishes Billy Corgan as a great, rather than ridiculous, frontman."

On the other hand, Pitchfork rightly found structural defects, noting that the songs lacked depth and that the album quickly became repetitive, while PopMatters didn't appreciate the latter-day Pumpkins-esque sugar rush of pop.


Zwan will be remembered as the curious bridge between Smashing Pumpkins and what that name would later devolve into.

Following the one-and-done adventure, Corgan resurrected the Pumpkins, retaining Chamberlain's services and hiring a rolling roster of session musicians, even replacing his long-term drummer following Chamberlain's departure in 2009.

That came two years after Zeitgeist, a tame nothing of an album only notable for a fun drum intro to opening track 'Doomsday Clock' and passable lead single 'Tarantula.'

Clip via Warner Bros. Records

The new Smashing Pumpkins landed in Dublin in 2008 for what went down as the single most disappointing gig this writer has ever had the misfortune of attending.

The RDS played host to a wildly self-indulgent two-and-a-half hour jam session in which Corgan proudly displayed a colossal ego, and a visible disdain for playing the songs people had parted with their money to hear, which rather summed up his dead-on-arrival rebirth.

The Billy Corgan of 2018 is still busying himself with various projects, from a recent solo album to making a third go at running a professional wrestling promotion, as well as apparently getting the gang back together for one last run.

Not everyone is on board, sadly, as original bassist D'arcy Wretsky appears to have been left out in the cold, but it's a vaguely intriguing move and certainly more appropriate than trading under the name for glorified solo gigs.

His short-lived side project is ultimately a footnote in a strange career, one that has involved spectacular heights for a band that arguably were never supposed to enjoy them.

Indeed, it's hard to tell if Billy Corgan ever really did enjoy it, apart from when he plastered a smile across his features and took the time to form Zwan, and hey, look how that turned out.