When we last saw and heard from Billy Corgan, during the death throes of the Smashing Pumpkins in 2000, he barely resembled the scraggly-haired kid of the band's early days. With his shaved head and Goth wardrobe, Corgan looked more like a guitar-playing cadaver. A mere decade before, the Pumpkins had brought a new sonic adventurousness to underground rock, bridging college-radio rawness and Bic-lighter arena rock. But ambition eventually gave way to bombast, bloat, and drug busts. After 1998's ''Adore'' failed to ignite the masses, Corgan gave increasingly bitter interviews that seemed to foist the blame on his audience -- never a smart public relations move -- and the band dribbled to a close three years ago with the oppressive, ersatz metal of ''Machina/The Machines of God.'' The whole mess was painful to watch, a woeful case of aspirations burning themselves out.
After the Pumpkins' farewell show, Corgan seemed destined for a career as a self-important solo act; sludgy albums recorded with orchestras appeared to be the next logical step. Instead, he formed another band -- featuring Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and members of the late, lamented indie guitar bands Slint, Tortoise, and Chavez -- and dubbed it Zwan, a name that, for better or worse, sounds like a villain in a '50s sci-fi flick. Broken down into components, Mary Star of the Sea, Zwan's first album (out Jan. 28), doesn't stray far from the basic Corgan formula. He may be just another member of the band, but he nevertheless sings all the songs, and there's no mistaking his nasal bray or his penchant for slathering on beefy, amped-up guitars.
But something has changed. ''Come in, make yourself at home,'' Corgan sings halfway through the album, and true to his words, the music is more inviting. ''Mary Star of the Sea'' has a sharp zestiness and power that have been missing from Corgan's work for some time. The three guitarists shred and wail as if in tribute to old Boston records; the rhythm section has the dark, driving buzz of vintage new wave. (Chamberlin has never sounded splashier or more kinetic.) Tracks like ''Endless Summer'' and ''Yeah!'' are vast, wondrous constructs of brawny guitars that take numerous twists and turns before stumbling gloriously into hooks that stay with you for days. The pleasant surprise of ''Mary Star of the Sea'' is that Corgan's band of mostly indie rockers has a better ear for a radio chorus than the major-label Pumpkins did. (The only worthy moments on ''Earphonia,'' the recently released set of live early Pumpkins material, were unplugged versions of ''Cherub Rock'' and ''Mayonaise.'')
The positive developments are equally evident in Corgan's voice. Maybe the pressure's off; maybe he's finally realized he'll never again be the king of rock, as he was in 1994. (Indeed, ''Mary Star of the Sea'' is likely to strike a new generation as too tuneful for its tastes.) Whatever the reason, Corgan sounds more relaxed, his voice softer and more unrestricted than it had become over time. The ballads, particularly ''Of a Broken Heart,'' have a bruised delicacy, and the sinuous ''Desire'' bobs along forlornly. These songs, like most on the album, grapple with romantic ups and downs, with Corgan appealing to special someones to save themselves and maintain their connection to him: ''Maybe we were born to kiss another/Maybe we were born to run forever/Maybe we were born to come together/Whatever,'' he sings in ''Declarations of Faith.'' But the cumulative mood isn't snide or petulant, as it's been in the past, but wistful and almost optimistic. For Corgan, making music still amounts to tension release rather than jubilant liberation, but he sounds as if he's enjoying himself for the first time since the days of Lollapalooza tours.
Corgan's mad-scientist side, his appetite for construction, still gets the best of him at times. ''Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea'' is 14 minutes of epic new-prog, with the guitars engaging in interstellar, improvisatory interplay. Yet the song's lumbering melody and arrangement eventually wear on you; the track should have been saved for a B side. Nor can Corgan, like many before him, write a song called ''Baby Let's Rock!'' and overcome the inherent lameness of such a title, even if the arrangement has moments of glam-pop glory. That aside, ''Mary Star of the Sea'' may be the least ambitious album Corgan's ever made -- and yet his most satisfying since the Pumpkins' heyday. As it turns out, he makes a pretty good slacker.