Mary Star of The Sea

Steven Hyden on Zwan’s Mary Star of The Sea, an album he bills as “Billy Corgan’s lost classic”:

In 2003 — as online piracy was wiping out a music industry that the Pumpkins had dominated just a half-decade earlier — FM radio was now populated by nu-metal and mall punk bands and the music press was enamored with the sharply dressed post-punk outfits coming out of New York City. Into that world entered Mary Star Of The Sea, a record straight out of 1996, a castaway from the death throes of alternative rock that didn’t reach the shore until the next decade. In the moment, the anachronistic feel of Corgan’s songs — no matter how well they were executed — made it inarguably obvious that this bygone era was dead and gone forever.

I now realise that I’ve been looking for a place to collect my various and somewhat perverse William Patrick Corgan/Pumpkins opinions, so here we go:

  • Gish (1991): Overrated
  • Siamese Dream (1993): Slightly overrated
  • Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995): Correctly rated
  • Adore (1998): Originally underrated, now correctly rated
  • Machina/Machine II (2000): Underrated
  • Mary Star of the Sea (2003): Underrated
  • Everything post-2003: Dire manufactured nostalgia

The 2023 consensus seems to be that Gish to Adore is a hell of a run. I remember being extremely disappointed with Adore, but I can recall the exact moment it clicked for me: out walking on a cold, dark evening, jittery Discman turned way too high, teenage self-pity also way too high, being utterly swept away by ‘For Martha’:

At that stage of my life I had yet to experience any real loss. Adore is soaked in grief, which might account for the initial difficulty I had getting into it. I was already shoulders-deep into sad music, for want of a better phrase, but the album moves in even darker emotions; Corgan had lost his mother (the Martha of the song) and touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin. Drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, present in the room when Melvoin died of a heroin overdose, was subsequently sacked; Smashing Pumpkins were almost always a Corgan solo project by another name, but Chamberlain was Corgan’s closest bandmate. (He would later rejoin the band and was a part of Zwan.)

Ian Cohen’s take on the record (as part of his Machina turns 20 piece) is instructive in terms of where the band as a whole was at the time:

By 1997, alternative rock was like a video game that Billy Corgan had beaten, and he was just doing side missions — releasing boxed sets of B-sides from a double album, collecting the band’s iconic videos on DVD, experimenting as an electro-rock hybrid on big-budget movie soundtracks. There was no way they could follow-up Mellon Collie by trying to top it. A logical next step would be their Tunnel of Love, a modest, downbeat recalibration of expectations.

The cumulative loss of this period consumed Corgan, and Adore bears the grief of persons lost as well as the crumbling of the archetypal 90s alternative rock sound from relevance. It is something of a graceful Billy Corgan record—far away from his typical spite—and it’s rightfully better thought of now than upon its release. I like it more than the first two records. There, I said it.

Hyden (whose comments about the list format have featured here previously) would no doubt disagree with my take, putting as he does a lot of Siamese Dream songs towards the top of his best Smashing Pumpkins songs.

Anyway, Zwan. A supergroup of people who should never have been in the same room, let alone band. Dave Pajo was in Zwan! Dave Pajo, of Slint and Tortoise. Paz Lenchantin, from A Perfect Circle. The whole thing made no sense then and even less now. But they made a (on the whole) terrific album.

One of the effects of the internet’s widespread adoption was the dismantling of monoculture. The 1990s was the last decade that had a fully formed culture of its own—or at least a small number of chunky, identifiable cultures. Alt rock was one of them. Mary Star of The Sea is an alt rock album that might have gone platinum if it had been released in the mid-90s. instead, it somehow came out in 2003, a time where everyone’s interest was in the cool detached sounds of NYC, bubblegum pop stars and moneyed R&B. It sold poorly, and the band’s members all returned to whence they came.

Its legacy is almost non-existent. Pumpkins fans, on the whole, loved the live shows but didn’t love the record. You won’t find it on any streaming services. Corgan has reissued various albums on vinyl, but no sign yet that he’s up for revisiting this one. That’s a shame, as a handful of Zwan songs rank extremely highly among Corgan’s career output: ‘Lyric’, ‘Honestly’, ‘Of A Broken Heart’ and my particular favourite, ‘Settle Down’, with its New Ordery bassline and an effervescent solo that serves as the song’s coda:

Viva Zwan!

Billy Corgan smiling politely
“Billy Corgan, Smiling Politely” via Stable Diffusion




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