Thirty years ago, The Last Poets saw it coming. "White man's got a god complex," they chanted -- and they hadn't even heard the Smashing Pumpkins yet.
The Smashing Pumpkins were one of the most demanding bands of the 1990s, not because their music seemed hard to understand but because it seemed so easy. All you had to do was give in, let them take over -- that is, let him take over. Billy Corgan wanted you to feel helpless, if only so that you could feel the way he felt. Maybe he knew his rock & roll messiah pose was ridiculous, but he couldn't resist it, didn't even try: "Emptiness is loneliness/And loneliness is cleanliness/And cleanliness is godliness/ And God is empty, just like me."
You need that kind of attitude if you're going to attempt something like Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, a two-disc immersion experience that often achieved the state of bliss Corgan loves singing about. But as the Smashing Pumpkins disintegrated, this attitude came to seem more like a nervous tic. That's what made Machina/The Machines of God so hard to sit through: The songs crashed and faded and built back up again, frantically reminding us of their own grandeur.
Now Corgan has a new band, called Zwan, and he has just recorded perhaps the most religious album of his career, Mary Star of the Sea. Look at the album credits, and here's what you'll find: drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, from the Smashing Pumpkins, alongside an army of post-punk veterans including guitarist David Pajo, formerly of Slint. As for that tall guy with the thin, high voice and the fuzzy guitar, the credits list him as Billy Burke, which also happens to be the name of a Florida evangelist who has dedicated his life to "touching the world with God's power." The frontman is a faith healer. So maybe you should listen to this album the same way lots of people read the Bible: Check out the amazing opening, skip ahead to the part where Jesus comes in, then convince yourself you've just heard the greatest story ever told.
The album starts with "Lyric," on which Corgan sings, "Here comes my faith to carry me on"; the real revelation is the chorus, which backs up his theology with a gorgeous vocal harmony. Then comes "Settle Down," which skips forward on Paz Lenchantin's bass line, and you remember that Zwan aren't a solo project -- Billy the giant has a posse. By the time you get to the album's lead single, a coy, Smiths-inspired love song called "Honestly," Mary Star of the Sea is shaping up as a classic.
It's not, or not quite. Zwan are more straightforward (and much less histrionic) than the Smashing Pumpkins, so a few of the songs in the middle are pretty but not very dramatic -- think of them as psalms. But then Jesus arrives -- that is, "Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea," the album's glorious conclusion. The first half is a mesmerizing reworking of the old hymn "Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken"; when the curlicue guitar line hits, at the two-minute mark, it might as well be a choir of angels.
"God and heaven are all my own," Corgan sings -- and, yes, that's pretty close to how the original goes (it must be one of the most swaggering hymns ever written). A bed of noise makes way for a quiet guitar interlude that wouldn't have sounded out of place on a Slint record.
The second half lurches to life: It's that old Smashing Pumpkins guitar sound, and it sounds even better than you remember it. "Everything just feels like rain," Corgan sings, and a booming guitar matches his every note, like some sort of heavenly vocoder (a machine of God?) making it hard to figure out where the voice stops and the instrument starts.
After fourteen minutes, "Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea" finally ends, and there's an epilogue: a beautiful ballad called "Come With Me," driven by acoustic guitar and harmonica. "Won't you come with me?" Corgan asks, and the demand is the same as always, even if he's asking nicely: All you have to do is say yes. (4/5)