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.