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.