Recordings

When Lou Reed's friends started dying, of course we heard about it. If he grew up in public, he may as well grow old there, too. He called his pretentious, jerky lamentation Magic and Loss. At some point, after wading through phrases like "I was visited by the Power and the Glory" (sure you were) or sitting with him at a loved one's funeral where all he can think about is how uncomfortable his chair is, I remember having one of those I-see-the-future moments, wondering how long until all the other old New York scenesters start plying us with their musical obituaries. Because rock 'n' roll is built to find a million ways to sing "She Loves You," but a million versions of "People Who Died"? I'm not so sure.

Patti Smith's Gone Again was set up that way -- her brother died, her husband died -- so that waiting for that first song to start seemed like a drawn-out, slow-motion eternity of dread. Turns out the first song (the title cut) sounds about as deathly as a newborn's scream. Every word bursts out of Smith's mouth, bounces off the walls, and smacks into your face. "Summer Cannibals" finds her voice, if possible, even more potent than that, ravaging the words "Eat/ Eat/ Eat" as if she hasn't had a meal in weeks. But these two rockers act like shoulders for the other, more delicate melodies to cry on. The mostly spare, fragrant songs, gathered together like lilacs on a grave, speak softly of old emotions. That the album's most devastating love song is called "My Madrigal" might signal that the heavy Elizabethan mood is intentional; Smith's modal airs, Lenny Kaye's lutelike guitar work, and Shakespearean odes to ravens and fireflies cover it all with a patina of grace. Introducing the last track, "Farewell Reel," Smith, with so much sweetness and so much pain, simply dedicates it to her late husband and lists the chords, as if beckoning her audience to sit next to her on the floor and play along. It's a generous invitation, but an unnecessary one. That late in this marvelous record, the listener is already right there by her side.

-- Sarah Vowell

Last November, by which time Patti Smith had done exactly one poetry reading in New York's Central Park and a few guest appearances at Lollapalooza, she was acclaimed as the comeback of the year in Rolling Stone. It should come as no surprise that now that there's an actual album -- Gone Again, Smith's first in eight years -- critics are falling all over themselves to find enough accolades. Part of the credit is due to the fem-crit movement, which rightly celebrates punk poetess Smith as the godmother of '90s artists ranging from Kathleen Hanna to Polly Jean Harvey. Another reason is the sympathy vote -- the Yoko factor, if you prefer -- which judges Gone Again in the light of Smith's personal losses, including her husband, her brother, and various close friends. But finally, it comes down to the fact that critics and fans miss the Patti Smith of "Gloria" and "Because the Night." This is where I have a problem, because rock 'n' roll's biggest enemy is nostalgia in any form -- whether it's for the halcyon '60s or the punk rock '70s.

The truth is Gone Again isn't as good as any of Smith's '70s releases. Yes, her voice remains strong, distinctive, and rich with character if limited in range -- the female Bob Dylan or Lou Reed. And if anything, her writing skills have gotten sharper: There are fewer cringe-worthy lines of awkward poetry, and the sentiments expressed in songs such as "Beneath the Southern Cross," "My Madrigal," and the title track are universal and open-ended, even though they're clearly inspired by the deaths of people close to Smith. Where the album falls short is the music. Smith is accompanied by longtime cohorts Lenny Kaye on guitar and Jay Dee Daugherty on drums, as well as Television's Tom Verlaine on four tracks. But only the tribal, tom-heavy "Gone Again," the breezy, upbeat "Summer Cannibals," and the relatively straight cover of Dylan's "Wicked Messenger" rock out, and even they do so with such weak grooves and laid-back attitudes that they would have elicited yawns from the amped-up crowd at CBGB's in 1977. The rest of the 11 tunes are gentle, lulling, and mellow, full of ringing acoustic guitars, lilting rhythms, and folkie textures such as mandolin, dulcimer, fiddle, and accordion. The result is more like a mediocre Richard and Linda Thompson album than anything by the old Patti Smith Group.

This isn't to say that, after 17 years in self-imposed exile as a suburban housewife and a period of tremendous grief and loss, Smith isn't allowed to come back as a different person, or to reinvent herself as an artist. But it's certainly fair to judge her new offerings by the standards she set with her own work. Smith has dealt with the issue of mortality before -- as on "Gloria," the first song on her first album -- but in the past, her inclination was to celebrate life with all the energy she could muster. "When I was younger, I felt it was my duty to wake people up," Smith recently told Interview magazine. "I thought poetry was asleep. I thought rock 'n' roll was asleep." Well, things aren't a hell of a lot livelier right now, and Gone Again ain't gonna stir things up. I wish that Smith had raged against the dying of the light instead of serenading it.

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