Most people are familiar with the work of Pulitzer Prize winning author and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Patti Smith. This compilation, a greatest hits of sorts for a woman whose career cannot be measured by chart successes, offers selections from every one of her 10 albums over the past 30-plus years. Outside Society is not Smith’s first compilation. She released the double disc Land back in 2002 with many of these same tracks. The question is not whether this 18-song anthology is worth hearing. Smith is a known quantity. If you like her and need a handy sampler of some of her best work on a clean, crisp recording, this is definitely for you. If you do not like Smith, this won’t change your mind as these are among her most recognized performances.
But this new disc does offer an opportunity to examine Smith’s oeuvre. The first song begins with the now famous line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” while the last one ends with “Trying to make heaven my home”. The particulars of a straight comparison are a little off. Smith penned the first song and the last one is a traditional spiritual. The first song came from her first album and the compilation is chronological until the last track — which came from an album released three years before the cut just before. It is this very displacement that makes the comparison interesting.
Has Smith repented and is looking for salvation as she gets older and closer to death? Nah. Smith had incorporated religiously inspired lyrics in her music early on, and even the original heretical call to Jesus was somewhat sacred in its profane presentation. Maybe she put it last just because it is a short and soothing song to close the overlong (close to 80 minutes) album with. After all, the most heralded track from that album (Trampin’) was the 12-plus-minute long “Radio Bagdad” which would not fit on the disc because of compact disc format limitations. But she could have easily left off another cut or two from the multiple selections from individual albums that were chosen and put “Radio Bagdad“ on the release, and I wish she would have as it is a strong diatribe against Western arrogance. Instead, she included three songs from Wave and a pair from several others. And yes, Smith herself picked the tracks and order of the songs included here.
The bare bones of the “Trampin’” arrangement with Smith’s vocals and piano played at a placid pace suggests she has found peace. The first and last songs balance each other out. She does this yinyang thing again at the center of the disc. Smith’s cover of The Byrd’s “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star” and “Power to the People” are numerically tracks 9 and 10 out of 18. “Rock and Roll Star” did appear on the album immediately before the one that “Power to the People” did, albeit almost 10 years apart. But the themes are completely opposite. Smith points out an individual’s helplessness at changing things in “Rock and Roll Star” (“Sell your soul to the company / Who are waiting there to sell plastic ware”) only to proclaim the reverse on the next cut (“People have the power / to dream / to rule / to wrestle the world from fools”). She sings both songs with pride and sincerity.
This striving for equilibrium seems to be the album’s underlying logic. The woman who once proclaimed (on the intro to “Rock N Roll Nigger“, which is also included here), that she “doesn’t fuck much with the past, but fucks plenty with the future” now is, fucking with the past. Perhaps that’s just the nature of compiling an anthology of previously recorded work. One looks behind, and in Smith’s case, she creates a symmetry. There are numerous examples, such as when she makes jungle sounds and proclaims the fun of eating human barbecue on “Human Cannibals” then follows it with the serious “1959”, about the fall of Tibet or when she sings the erotic strip tease of “Lo and Beholden” and immediately next does an acoustic version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with banjo accompaniment where she declaims “a mosquito my libido”.
Whatever. Nevermind. All hail Patti Smith, the postmodern beat queen who looks back at what she’s done and finds a pattern; where excess in all things is fine if succeeded by its opposite. The artist who once claimed to be “outside society” is now an insider celebrated by the establishment. The style of rebellion has again become incorporated into the mainstream. That doesn’t mean it’s not cool. Things just have a way of balancing out.