Recordings

-- Jim DeRogatis

Would Gone Again take flight without its autobiographical baggage? That to me is the critical question facing Patti Smith's first album in the wake of her husband's and brother's deaths. It's not a question of ignoring her personal losses; clearly, that information shapes our responses to the work. But does Gone Again penetrate the pathos of death and soar under its own musical powers? Does it make us forget Smith's sorrows and stir our own intimations of mortality?

To even ask such questions of a rock album in this fin de siecle of lowered expectations seems hopelessly anachronistic. But Smith is special, and always will be. As Nick Tosches once wrote, Smith is the "first poet born of rock 'n' roll." With Horses, she wed the cathartic rhythms of language to the basic rhythms of rock and opened up a new realm of musical experience and deliverance. She failed when her literary aspirations outstripped her chords and melodies, proving her incantatory lyrics were pretentious without similarly inspired music, as was the case with most of Wave.

But Gone Again finds the writer and musician in perfect sync and picking up the themes of estrangement and redemption from the triumphant Easter: This time, though, the album's bells chime elegiacally across a rural plain. The revelation of Gone Again is Smith's marriage of plainsong melodies and pastoral imagery. In "My Madrigal" and "Wing," especially, she writes and sings with the courage to hold the strongest emotions in the simplest metaphors. She has never sounded more assured, warmer, more inviting.

The answer is yes: Gone Again sails far past its origins. It's scary to think of all the permutations through which rock has danced since Smith pirouetted at the center of the Zeitgeist. But looking back and listening to Gone Again today, it's easy to see that rock has missed Patti Smith, missed her poetry terribly.

-- Kevin Berger

You might have steeled yourself for the kind of primal, angry venting of grief Patti Smith rarely shows here; her loss of loved ones since 1988's Dream of Life has been so great. Gone Again is peopled with men who have died too soon, one of them her husband and collaborator, Fred "Sonic" Smith. But this is a tenderly stoic collection of ancient-sounding sorrows. Smith was never one to lean on everyday minutiae to authenticate real-life experience; she was always plugged into the earthly mysteries, without and within, and here she has grown into the artistic ground she began working 20-odd years ago. Her focus remains elemental and biblical, acknowledging the cycle of life. She looks to past and future generations as she does her part, step by step, and sings reassuringly to the spirit of her late husband: "[Your] children will rise/ Strong and happy be sure."

Lenny Kaye and co-producer Malcolm Burn give the songs an ageless resonance; we can hear where Smith began. Although the metallic wash of yore lingers, at the core you'll find Central European folk music, threadbare blues, and meticulously explored Celtic melodies -- and a voice as mysterious as Atlantis itself. Two collaborations with her late husband ("Gone Again" and "Summer Cannibals") provide the bridge from the past to these new elegiac waltzes and lurching laments so reminiscent of some Weill-Brecht operetta. In contrast, her cover of "Wicked Messenger" (by Bob Dylan, the man who gave Patti Smith those absurdly compressed vowel sounds) comes across as acrid, ponderous, and downright unpleasant.

In the face of all her loss, Patti Smith responded by celebrating release, renewal, and life's balances. She wrote the sweetest, most unself-conscious love song in "Frederick" for 1979's Wave; on Gone Again she illustrates again the hidden snares that trap our hearts: "With [his] strange way of walking and strange way of breathing" ("Dead to the World"). Similarly buoyant is her spoken introduction to "Farewell Reel": "This little song is for Fred/ It's G, C, D, D minor," relaying the chords as if they were about to play the song together.

-- Cath Carroll

Patti Smith fans can check out the Babelogue Website at www.oceanstar.com/patti/.

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