It’s impossible to ignore the political nature of Patti Smith’s work, as well as the debt she owes—and so often repays—to her influences. Often these two elements butt against each other in her music. In the olden days, her very individual takes on songs like “Hey Joe” and “Gloria” served as Smith’s declaration of intent, and quickly made her the strongest female presence in rock and roll since Janis Joplin. Her tendency to bulldoze and reconstruct the songs of her male predecessors, while on the one hand an almost revolutionary act in its determination to wrest control from male power holders, also made it almost too easy to view her as one of the boys. When covering “The Hunter Gets Captured By the Game”, she’d credit Smokey Robinson, the songwriter, rather than the Marvelettes, the performers. Her androgyny only heightened the tension between the masculine and feminine elements of her music.
Although Twelve indicates that Smith’s backward-looking approach hasn’t changed all that much in the past 30 years, it seems the implications of her methods certainly have. Covering or drawing inspiration from the two mighty Morrisons, the Who, Dylan, Hendrix, and early rock and soul hits served in 1976 to reclaim those figures, and rock and roll, if only for a moment, from the fast-emerging clutches of corporate entertainment. A similar act today, however, seems almost hopelessly old-fashioned. It must be distressing to be Patti Smith and to see that your heroes and inspirations have all been swallowed, not only by the conglomerates but by society at large. As a result, there’s no one to reclaim this music from or for. So why is her gut response to puke it all back up? Who’s left who hasn’t already been served this dish? Who cares anymore?
In a sense, it’s hard not to care when you’re listening to this person who seems to communicate with such sincerity. I won’t argue that there isn’t passion in Smith’s vocals, tension in much of the music, or some real value to this project. In fact, Smith sounds younger on this record than she has on her past few, and she’s worked with sympathetic musicians throughout her career. So even if Twelve never really rocks, it still sounds good, and holds up very well to repeated listenings. It feels thematically coherent, both lyrically and musically. Serious Patti Smith fans will no doubt be pleased, and people who enjoy covers records will likely find much to appreciate.
But coming as it does in the year of Smith’s much-ballyhooed induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it’s a little hard to simply accept this as the Big Political Statement it seems on the surface to be. For one thing, Smith’s choice of covers is unsurprisingly weighted very heavily toward the old-guard, almost exclusively male performers who make classic-rock radio such a stagnant pool of sonic sludge. Sure, 1967 was a good year, but there have been 40 more since then. Why should a third of this record come from that year? “She’s an artist, she don’t look back” doesn’t apply to Patti Smith, or at least half of it doesn’t. And I guess it’s sometimes hard to tell which half. One minute she’s attempting to resuscitate “Midnight Rider”, of all things, and the next, in “Pastime Paradise”, she’s telling us to “start livin’ for the future”. Thankfully this is the note she leaves us with, but what are we to make of it when she’s used so much of her allotted hour as an excuse to trot out old warhorses like “Gimme Shelter” and “Helpless”?
Even if the sources of much of Smith’s material are yawn-inducing, it’s pretty difficult to find fault with some of her picks. Rather than go the obvious route and pick one of Bob Dylan’s pointed protest songs, she tackles “Changing of the Guards”, an epic whose “meaning” is only apparent to those with an intimate knowledge of the Tarot and whose political connotations come solely from the title and the beginning of the final verse: “Peace will come / With tranquility and splendor”. Rather than invoke John Lennon, she tries her hand at George Harrison’s oft-maligned “Within You Without You”, continuing her recent fascination with Eastern sounds and lyrical themes.
It’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, though, that’s bound to be the most talked-about song on the album, not because it’s the only epochal thing here (“Gimme Shelter” and “White Rabbit” probably fall into that category), and not because it’s the only one that hasn’t been done to death already (like I said, she mostly avoids the especially predictable songs at her disposal), but because she slows it down and finds its soul buried beneath a rotting porch in darkest Appalachia. “Our little group has always been / And always will until the end” issues forth from Patti Smith’s lips with almost as much resonance as it did from Kurt Cobain’s (at least in hindsight), in her case tinged with the knowledge of what it takes to survive. (Although I wonder how Patti Smith feels about “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”.) Sure, she throws in some of her own poetry—“Children of the mills, children of the junkyards, sleepy, illiterate, fuzzy little rats” etc.—but this is only a sure sign that the folk process is in full swing, swaying along to the rhythms of the banjo and gypsy fiddle. It’s a mesmerizing, haunting recording, and probably the best thing here.
Whether Twelve is a mostly sincere sermon, a stop-gap, a cash-in, or a not-unlikely combination of all of these and more, it’s ultimately just another Patti Smith album, with all the contradictions we’ve come to expect. It may not be revolutionary—in fact, if anything, it’s too safe to feel any impulse to disagree with it—but Smith’s conviction is apparent, and her commitment is respectable. It’s not a bad listen, either.