Rainbows + sunshowers

So here’s the real question: has Billy Corgan finally loosened up his sphincter?

Toward the end of his reign as Smashing Pumpkins’ creative svengali, Corgan’s belief in his own press got pretty durned tiring.

Now three years after the Pumpkins disbanded, Corgan returns with Zwan, a project purported to possess little of his former band’s gravitas.

But let’s call Mary Star of the Sea, Zwan’s debut album, for what it is — the next Smashing Pumpkins album.

Sure, Corgan’s familiar whine and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain’s octopus-armed drumming wrap Zwan in a familiar aural blanket. And even with three guitarists in the band, Corgan gives them the same interplay he did when overdubbing himself and James Iha back in the Pumpkin days.

Right from the start of “Lyric”, you can predict when the band will strum its first power chord, when Chamberlain will switch to a different drumming pattern, when all the guitarists will jump in at one time for the bridge.

Hell, you can even sing the lyrics of “Today” over most of “Honestly”.

But some things are definitely different with Zwan — mercifully so. The rainbows, suns and clouds on the album’s cover are definitely reflected in the music, a sunniness the Pumpkins were never really reknowned for.

(When it comes to sunny pop, Iha is the hands-down master — check out “Skirt,” a song Iha wrote for Japanese pop chanteuse Chara.)

In fact, Mary Star of the Sea shows a heavy New Order influence.

The bass line for “Declaration of Faith” owes a huge debt to Peter Hook. The disco beat of “El Sol” and the simple guitar lines on “Settle Down” sound more like Get Ready (New Order’s 2001 comeback album) than Mellon Collie. Strip away the distortion of “Ride a Black Swan”, and it would probably sound like the thick chords of early New Order.

Even though Zwan feels incredibly familiar, the lighter songs are actually a nice break. Smashing Pumpkins became a victim of its own success, a beacon for angst that became obsolete when Britney Spears and ‘NSync became the pop culture narcotic of choice.

Zwan may not completely unshakle Corgan from the wall of guitars he so adores, but there’s a significant difference in tone to allow for more flexibility — even when Corgan indulges his inner prog-rocker on the 14-minute “Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea”.

Yes, Mary Star of the Sea is a Smashing Pumpkins record — one the band never let itself record. And yeah, Billy Corgan has finally lightened the fuck up.