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.