A singular artist in an era where female musicians were most often kept under the thumb of their bandmates or managers, Patti Smith looked and sounded like no one else — a statement as true now as it was in 1975, when her first album, Horses, was released. Having worked as an actor, a playwright and, most frequently, a poet, Smith brought a range of experiences to her early recordings, and rather than leave off the parts that didn’t overlap, she pushed them to the fore. The miniature opus “Land” mingled references to the French poet Rimbaud and “Land of a Thousand Dances”; this was music that made you think while you moved, or vice-versa. Throughout the course of her career, Smith has proven to be one of the most enduring and consistently vital artists of her generation, as well as the spiritual godmother to innumerable like-minded souls; Michael Stipe famously said that listening to Horses as a teenager “tore my arms and legs off and put them back on in a new way.” She’s made great albums and less-than-good ones, but never one that sounds like anything but who she’s always been.
The Holy Trinity
Many an artist busts out of the starting gate with a first album full of pent-up passions, but few have ever sprung forth so fully formed, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. "Gloria" gathers steam gradually, beginning with a stately two-chord piano vamp whose unresolved center lays the groundwork for Smith's scorched-earth salvo. When Smith sings "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine," she's repudiating not just Christianity but all that came before her; she will be her own salvation. By intermingling church hymn and classic rock staple and adding a pinch of Sapphic shock value, Smith rewrote the Gospel as a story of liberation: from her past, from society, from herself. "Free Money" moves through a fantasy of financial independence to a dream of more impossible freedoms: "I'll buy you a jet plane/ Take you through the stratosphere, check out the planets there." Jay Dee Daugherty's drums hurtle headlong behind her, the song picking up speed until all Smith can do is chant the song's title, the words sounding like the chug of a runaway locomotive. The songs on Horses follow a similar pattern: Start slow, build to a frenetic pace and, if there's time, do it again. Idolizing Rimbaud and Mick Jagger in equal measure, Smith joined free-associative spoken word and the guttural pre-language of rock 'n' roll primitivism, poetry and shoobee-doobee. Sometimes the fusion was literal: The three-part "Land" bridges the gap between a portrait of homosexual rape and its aftermath with a warped reflection of "Land of a Thousand Dances." (Smith's first single, "Hey Joe," pulled a similar movie with the classic-rock staple by interpolating lyrics about Patty Hearst.) But often the fusion is more subtle, Smith slipping between recitation and incantation so seamlessly that the border between them disappears.
By the time of Patti Smith's second album — the first credited to her eponymous group rather than her alone — the tension between poetry and rock that animated Horses had been definitively resolved in the latter's favor. Trading the Velvet Underground's John Cale for veteran rock producer Jack Douglas (Aerosmith, the Who), the album has a dense, guitar-heavy sound and more traditional song structures, pushing Smith closer to mainstream success while jettisoning many of the characteristics that got her noticed in the first place.
The opening "Ask the Angels" successfully presents Smith as a nascent rock goddess, but the slicked-up, dumbed-down "Pumping (My Heart)" reveals the price of the tradeoff. Stretching out over 12 minutes of droning organ and haunted-house guitar, the climactic duo of "Radio Ethiopia" and "Abyssinia" reach back to the first album's form, but Smith's growled vocals render the lyrics almost unintelligible. "Pissing in a River" successfully reverses Horses' course, pushing rock towards poetry rather than the other way around; its primal stomp pulls you in, while lyrics like "My bowels are empty, excreting your soul" warn you to approach with caution.
Over time, Radio Ethiopia's veneer wears thin, allowing the natural beauty of a song like "Poppies" to bleed through to the surface. But it's best to have a firm grounding in Smith's strengths first, lest the album turn you away or, worse, leave you with the wrong idea.
The title of Smith's third album has more to do with her recovery from a 1977 stage accident than the resolution of the artistic tensions that plagued Radio Ethiopia, but the resurrection is just as dramatic. That Smith co-wrote "Because the Night" with Bruce Springsteen could have been the final proof of her surrender to commercialism; instead, it was proof that she could reach outward and in at the same time.
"Because the Night" is an anomaly on Easter and Smith's career in general, the rare song on which she shares credit with someone outside of her inner circle; the unlikely collaboration came as a result of a nervous phone call from producer Jimmy Iovine, who failed to see a potential single among the tracks Smith and her band were laying down. But by this point, Smith was Springsteen's equal, if not commercially, in her sense of clarity and self-possession. Even erratic notions like "Space Monkey" and the misguided metaphor of "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger" are put across with such force that their shortcomings are burned away.
In stark contrast to the cluttered sound of its predecessor, the songs on Easter have room to breathe. There's a sense of space in and around them, whether it's concert ambience of "Babelogue" or the acoustic single-mic vibe of "Ghost Dance." The place Smith has found herself isn't what those whose lives were changed by Horses might have expected, or even wanted, but she sounds as if she belongs there. She's no longer trying to be a star; she just is one.
Years in the Wilderness
Although she kept it from her band during the sessions, Smith knew going in that Wave would be her last album for a while, if not forever. Inspiration was flagging; the band had hardly any complete songs when they turned up to record with producer Todd Rundgren. The offhanded quality enhances the title track, a disarmingly casual monologue addressed to Pope John Paul I, tagged with a sung-spoken coda that briefly evokes Gregorian chant. But too often, the songs are only half there, and Rundgren's thin, unsympathetic production gives them nowhere to hide. The pounding organ of "Citizen Ship" needlessly underlines an already clunky lyric, made worse by Smith's uninspired riff on Emma Lazarus in the closing bars.
Wave's crests come early. "Frederick" is a tender tribute to former MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, who Smith would shortly marry, and "Dancing Barefoot" revisits the liberation of Horses from a more worldly perspective. Through the verse and into the chorus, the song gradually rises in pitch, moving slowly upwards rather than lunging for the top rung. Smith's ambivalence about the life of a public artist is neatly expressed by the "strange music" that makes her "come on like some heroin(e)." Is she moving towards a better self, or simply getting high on her own supply? Wave still sounds like an album made with one foot out the door, but Smith got in her last licks before fleeing the scene.
Were it not for Patti Smith's name on the cover, fans might have flipped right past Dream of Life in the record bins, not realizing Smith had returned from her self-imposed nine-year hiatus. The woman on the cover bears scant resemblance to the gaunt, androgynous figure of years past, and with good reason; the profane Manhattan poet was now a suburban mother of two. Smith rebuffs suggestions that she "gave up" her career to raise children, but it certainly sounds as if her primary interest was elsewhere. The blunt sloganeering of "People Have the Power" would be easier to swallow from a writer who hadn't previously demonstrated a gift for more personal anthems, and the production, by Fred Smith and Jimmy Iovine, leans heavily on contemporary radio clichés. Artists have the right, even the duty, to change over time, but change in the direction of John Mellencamp ("Looking for You") is not a step forward.
A solid ballad anchored by Smith's melancholy vocal, "Paths That Cross" indicates what might have been. There's a mellifluous quality to her voice, unconstrained by persona or posturing, the sound of a woman who's been happily out of the limelight for nearly a decade. But the truism that personal contentment rarely produces great art holds true. The angry, sputtering fire has become a warm and even glow, enough to keep warm but not enough to share.
The Second Coming
Only Smith's second album in 10 years, Gone Again was preceded by a succession of less welcome milestones: the deaths of Smith's husband Fred "Sonic" Smith, her brother Todd, longtime friend Robert Mapplethorpe and her former keyboard player, Richard Sohl. It's an album made of necessity, gathering old friends Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty to take stock of what remains. Co-credited to her late husband, the title track opens the album with a burst of angry guitar, but for the most part, the mood is subdued, pushing towards acceptance, endurance, and, in the case of the Kurt Cobain-inspired "About a Boy," understanding. "Wing" is as lovely and heartbreaking a song as Smith has ever recorded, a transparent hymn of loss and hope.
Gone Again is inspired by loss, but it also celebrates the common experience of grief. Smith opens "Farewell Reel" with a spoken dedication to her husband, then follows it with a list of the song's chords: G, C, D, D minor. Anyone can play along, and sooner or later they will. Smith doesn't push towards universals as forcefully as on Wave, but they emerge all the same from amidst a thicket of personal, sometimes indecipherable, images. Her loss is our loss.
As much as it's a series of farewells, Gone Again is also the mark of Smith's full-fledged return, her most fully realized album since Easter and a high-water mark of her latter-day career.
Coming hard on the heels of the bereavement that inspired Gone Again, Peace & Noise finds Smith still sifting through the ashes. She sounds more confident here; less shell-shocked, giving her a greater degree of control but inevitably (and no doubt thankfully) losing some of the raw hurt. As befits the title, Smith broadens her focus to include loss on a national and historical level. "1959" muses on possibilities vanished and squandered, juxtaposing the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the rise of American prosperity: "In the land of the Impala, baby, things were looking fine."
"Memento Mori" looks back to Smith's own past. The story of a Vietnam veteran killed in action stretches out over 10 minutes, its mixture of evocative blank verse and primitive rock 'n' roll (in this case a fitful evocation of the Bo Diddley beat) harking back to Horses' "Land". Some of the songs take on an impersonal cast as Smith strays into more far-reaching subjects, but Peace & Noise proved that Gone Again's return to form was no fluke and Smith was back for good this time.
The title and the cover photo of a uniformed soldier are enough to spark fears that Smith's eighth album takes a turn for the impersonal — only fair after two albums consumed with personal grief. On the page, Gung Ho's lyrics are rife with topical clunkers like "Glitter in Their Eyes." ("Genius stalking in new shoes/ Have you got WTO blues?") Luckily, that line is yoked to the most irresistible riff since "Because the Night," which pushes the song forward so smoothly there's no time to object. Producer Gil Norton gives the album an energetic sheen while still allowing the lengthy "Strange Messengers" and the title track ample space to stretch out. Smith's singing voice has never been so supple and strong: On "New Party," she leaps between notes and shifts accents as if staging a radio drama. It's almost hard to imagine a woman so far into her career coming up with new tricks that work so well, but the evidence is impossible to refute.
The title of Smith's ninth album evokes her vagabond lifestyle, but it also conjures the image of a foot coming down hard, which turns out to be the more apt metaphor for its leaden political broadsides. Smith's anger is galvanizing, but it's not enough to get past such lyrical humps as "Our sacred realms are being squeezed/ Curtailing civil liberties."
"My Blakean Year" departs from the breast-beating for a vaguely ominous tale of spiritual searching, enhanced by the anxious twitter of a string quartet. But too often the songs follow the pattern of "Radio Baghdad" and "Ethiopia," applying Smith's indisputable artistry to terrain that's already been mapped.
The cover of Twelve, featuring a tambourine decorated for her by confidante Robert Mapplethorpe, serves notice that Smith's covers album is no lark or contract-filler, but a way of paying homage to those whose music has shaped her from childhood on. The inclusion of patron saints Jimi Hendrix, the Doors and the Rolling Stones is no surprise to anyone who's heard Smith discuss her influences, but Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon might come as a bit of a shock. (The expanded version includes a version of the Decemberists' "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect.")
Smith approaches most songs as a disciple, which is to say that the arrangements are faithful without being slavish and the main distinguishing factor is the sound of her voice. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is recast as bluegrass, with playing by several Holy Modal Rounders, but such digressions are the exception rather than the rule. There's nothing so bold as her early appropriations of Them's "Gloria" and Hendrix's "Hey Joe," so while Twelve casts a fascinating light on the albums that precede it, it doesn't stand with the best of them.
Patti Smith's best-selling 2010 memoir Just Kids meticulously described her intimate, intricate friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The narration was doubly resonant: Readers gleaned Smith's essence first through her own first-person recollections and how she described interacting with her late collaborator and confidant. Banga, her first album of new material since 2004's Trampin', largely draws its emotional exposition from the latter. The result is a profoundly affecting collection which finds the revered artist wholly engaged with the characters, both real and imagined, that inhabit her songs.
Freed from the constrictions of straightforward introspection, Banga addresses a variety of topics. The starry-eyed '50s-rock lullaby "This Is The Girl" is a touching tribute to Amy Winehouse; emphasizing her triumphs, the song references someone who "twisted his laurel to crown her head." What begins as a faithful cover of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush" turns into a pointed indictment of environmental harm by skipping the second verse of the original and incorporating children's vocal, adding the repeating lyric, "Look at mother nature/ On the run in the 21st century." And "Fuji-san," a quintessential Smith driving rocker, is a stirring show of solidarity with post-earthquake Japan.
Musically, however, Banga largely shies away from raw aggression, save for the searing snarl of the title track and the thundering drums and droning riffs of the ominous "Constantine's Dream." "April Fool," which features lovely bubbling guitar warbles by Television's Tom Verlaine, is incredibly poppy; the folky strum "Mosaic" boasts elegant mandolin; and "Amerigo" floats on keening strings and Smith's breathy, at times almost frail, vocals.
The observational nature of Banga enhances the impact of its most personal song, the torchy jazz-lounge lament "Maria." Tangentially based on the actress Maria Schneider, the tune feels like Smith mourning (and forgiving) her '70s self, with phrases such as "We didn't know the precariousness of our young powers — all the emptiness" and "Wild, wild hair/ Sad, sad eyes/ White shirt, black tie/ You were mine." While confronting mortality is nothing new for Smith, the gentle sadness of the song is startling. Being unfettered by her personal mythology — thanks to the release and success of Just Kids has, paradoxically, made Smith's ruminations that much more resonant. — Annie Zaleski