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.

-- 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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