In the New York punk scene of the late 1970s, among groups such as the Ramones, Television and Talking Heads, Patti Smith stood out. She took on a masculine image, wearing sports coats and ties. She brought poetry back to rock ‘n’ roll in a way that had not been seen since Bob Dylan. And in a career that has spanned more than 20 years, she has made some of the most exciting and vital music in rock history. Now Smith is back again with her new album Gung Ho (Arista) one of her most enigmatic to date.
Throughout her career Smith has produced albums with different themes. Her first four albums in the 1970s – Horses, Radio Ethiopia, Easter and Wave – were filled with pure excitement, the sound of an artist bursting onto the music scene full of creativity. Then came Dreams of Life in the 1980s. The album showed Smith at her most content and happy point in her life, married and raising a family in suburban Detroit.
Unfortunately, this weak album gives a lot of weight to the idea that artists have to suffer for their work. In the 1990s, after the death of her husband, brother, lover and friend Robert Maplethorpe, and Kurt Cobain, Smith put out the albums Gone Again and Peace and Noise, albums that were filled with anger and sadness.
Gung Ho resembles a greatest hits album – not because it compiles songs from all of Smith’s albums but because of the styles. Gung Ho blends the different Smiths revealed on her different albums on one album. For the most part it works, giving you a picture of Smith as a whole.
One of the album’s few missteps is the opener, One Voice. It sounds like Smith and her band were warming up for the rest of the album. Her voice croaks out over a pounding drumbeat. She’s trying too hard to create an anthem, and it shows.
The rest of the album, however, picks up sharply. Many of the songs combine the styles of Smith’s early work with the more mature, warm sound of her later albums. Lo and Beholden is a slow, sensual number that drips with a sexuality that has not been seen from Smith since her album Horses. Songs such as Boy Cried Wolf and Upright Come have the anger and indignation that marked much of Smith’s best work. She may have aged, but she hasn’t calmed down.
Although she started in punk, Smith’s best songs always are filled with the hooks pop songs would die for. Gung Ho contains several of these songs. It may be her most radio-friendly album to date.
But being catchy doesn’t mean that the songs are slight or disposable. Persuasion has a jangly guitar riff and organ that could have come straight from early REM, one of the many bands that claim to be influenced by Smith. Gone Pie is a slow, haunting song. Its sinister bass line melds perfectly with the way Smith sings. It as if she’s whispering to you from some dark alleyway. Glitter in Their Eyes, the first single off the album, is a shot of pure energy. Seeing Smith perform live is like watching a live wire jerk around, and this song captures the feeling perfectly.
These songs also show the strength of Smith’s band, which usually gets left out of the discussion. With guitarist Lenny Kaye, who has been with Smith since her early days, the band always has provided a perfect counterpoint.
Many things have been said about the poetic nature of Smith’s lyrics. While she is an amazing writer, just reading her lyrics on the page often makes them look weak. It’s when the lyrics are in the context of the amazing band’s music that they truly shine.
Despite the many strengths of the album there are a couple of slight songs on the album. Strange Messengers, with its tale of slaves on a plantation, sounds oddly out of place – like an odd remake of Neil Young’s Southern Man. Grateful is a pretty, if not memorable, folk song. It is in this song, when Smith’s voice is set to bare accompaniment, that the warmth of her singing comes out. Libbie’s Song, is probably the only awful song on the album. It takes Smith’s appreciation of country western music to an extreme that borders on a parody.
Gung Ho ends with the title track, an 11-minute epic. It starts out slowly, a bare-bones guitar chugging away and the sound of steady drums. The effect is hypnotic, drawing you in. Then Smith slowly comes in, singing in a drawn-out hushed tone. The album slowly builds, achieving the anthem-sound that One Voice failed to do. Lyrically, it deals with the Vietnam War, but it stands out as an anti-war piece. Kaye uses his guitar to create sounds that sound like a helicopter coming in or a machine gun firing in the distance. Soldiers can be heard chanting gung ho in a funeral dirge style.
Gung Ho may not achieve the legendary status of Smith’s earlier work. It does give the listener an overall view of this incredible and important artist – who she is, what she is about and why, ultimately, Patti Smith will be remembered as one of the greats.