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.