It’s hard to review something by as consummate an artist as Patti Smith without just listing all the similes for “outstanding”. Although Smith hasn’t released an album of original material since 2004’s Trampin’ (2007’s Twelve was a covers album), her 2010 memoir, Just Kids received a similar helping of praise and even received a National Book Award. Banga, Smith’s 11th studio album, serves as a glorious refresher on Smith’s talent as musician while also upholding her reputation as a writer. Banga‘s Smith-penned liner notes outlining the album’s germination make critical interference seem all the more unnecessary.
Every fiber of Banga is packed with meaning. The lyrics ricochet off into myriad directions, the music — crafted by longtime collaborators Lenny Kaye, Jay Dee Daugherty, and Tony Shanahan — nails home lyrical meanings and serves as a prime example of a picture perfect artistic marriage. Surprise collaborators, such as Television’s Tom Verlaine and Smith’s son and daughter, add even more inventive muscle to the proceedings. The whole thing even began under the pull of an auteur — the album started forming while Smith and Kaye were aboard a ship with Jean Luc Goddard, who requested their involvement in his film Socialism — and the author of a cult novel: the album’s title comes from Mikhail Bulgakov’s sympathy for the devil novel The Master and the Margarita. More so than Goddard, Bulgakov should be credited for providing Banga with so many ear-opening moments; “Banga” the song feels like one of Smith’s most vital pieces since the Easter era. Additionally, reading Bulgakov led to Smith investigating fellow Russian genius Nikolai Gogol, whose writing inspired Bulgakov as well as the Banga track “April Fool”. One of the two tracks which features a solo from Verlaine, it is maybe one of the more straightforwardly beautiful cuts on the album.
Banga‘s other high points concern eulogizing the dead. Seeing as death served as the chief inspiration behind 1996’s Gone Again, singing in tribute to those who have fallen is not exactly alien territory for Smith. Still, three songs on Banga prove no one does this better than she. “Fuji-San”, more of, as Smith says, “a call of prayer to the great mountain” than eulogy, was written following the Tohoku earthquake which hit Japan in March 2011. French actress Maria Schneider, whom Smith met in the ’70s, is given a lovely tribute in the ballad, “Maria”, which features a guitar solo from Smith’s son Jackson that, as Smith says, reflects the actress’ “raw and excitable nature”. But the eulogy that will perhaps award Banga the most publicity is a song for Amy Winehouse entitled “This is the Girl”. Smith’s lyrics feel specific to Winehouse’s legacy yet resist any on-the-nose observations, and the girl-group tone of the music serves as a lovely tribute to the music Winehouse helped revitalize. Smith describes the song as “an easy, painless birth for a girl who seemed to suffer such personal anguish.”
From opener “Amerigo”, which showcases Smith’s still-alluring vocal prowess, through the 10-minute spoken-word improvisation “Constantine’s Dream”, to the lovely rendition of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” that serves as the album closer, Banga is free of any dips or lulls. “Nine”, a song written as a birthday present to Johnny Depp, could perhaps be called out as the album’s weakest track, but once one gets over their jealousy of Smith having such awesome friends, it really isn’t that bad. We hardly needed to be ite:reminded of Smith’s faultlessness, but Banga is the sort of reminder one will welcome repeatedly.