Gone Again is an apt title for Patti Smith’s sixth album, released 25 years ago this month. Imbued with grief, the record’s ten original songs reel from loss yet eventually right themselves and shape a way forward. The road is murky and often circuitous, leading back to familiar territory before forging ahead. Through it all, Smith stays true to her work by incorporating the loss and laying it bare but not letting it obscure her vision.
When I told a friend I was writing about Gone Again, he asked (only half-jokingly), “Does anybody listen to any of her albums besides that first one?” I took the bait, responding with mock indignation and a shove in the arm. But I knew what he meant; Horses, Smith’s legendary 1975 debut LP, changed countless lives—mine included—in its 43 minutes of proto-punk poetry. It’s still, after all, the record most associated with her.
After Horses and three subsequent career-defining records in the 1970s, Smith stepped away from the spotlight into suburban Michigan, taking time off to raise a family with husband Fred “Sonic” Smith. She reappeared after nearly a decade with 1988’s Dream of Life, hailed at the time as her “comeback” album. Whereas Smith’s ’70s collections dealt with personal poetics—exploring themes of sexuality, religion, and mysticism—Dream of Life contained a call to collective action via anthems like “People Have the Power” and “Where Duty Calls”. The songs on Dream of Life were sonically different due largely to Fred’s collaboration and co-production. His songs were straight-ahead rockers with a conventional structure; with the added sheen of Jimmy Iovine’s production, they would be at home on any late ’80s mainstream rock record. It’s a solid effort, sure, but a triumphant “comeback” it was not.
Eight years would pass between Dream of Life and Gone Again, which was also framed as a “comeback” release when it came out in 1996. (Of course, I’m not sure how many years must elapse between albums for the next one to be designated a “comeback”.) However, this time, Smith was not coming back from domestic idyll; instead, she was coming back from several great losses. Specifically, her dear friend and fellow traveler, Robert Mapplethorpe, succumbed to AIDS in 1989; Patti Smith Group pianist Richard Sohl died of a heart attack in 1990; Fred died of sudden heart failure in late 1994; and only weeks later, Smith’s brother, Todd, suffered a fatal stroke. In addition, Kurt Cobain— whom Smith had never met yet recognized as a kindred spirit—killed himself in 1994.
Though much of Gone Again responds to those tragedies, the songwriting for it actually started before Fred died. Taken against the whole, his contributions are outliers. The single “Summer Cannibals”, with its deliberate Bo Diddley beat, is reminiscent of “City Slang” (the only release by Fred’s post-MC5 group, Sonic’s Rendezvous Band). An indictment of the destructive aspects of fame, Smith nevertheless sees it as a survival song: “If there’s anything negative on the album, it’s that song. But it’s got a sense of humor, in the way, I sing it because I survived it all. It didn’t have an unhappy ending for me”.
Fred’s other songwriting credit is the title track. It leads off the album but was the last song to be recorded, and it’s the last piece of music he wrote before his death. Originally conceived as a paean to the Native American spirit, when Patti later wrote the words, they became an homage to “the warrior who fell”. The lyrics are a shamanistic incantation of life lost: “One last breath, lick of flame / Spirit moaned, spirit shed / The heavens fed man’s own kin / Grips the sky and he’s gone again.”
Fred’s two songs are potent and instantly hummable, but the best pieces are the ones most like Patti’s earlier recordings. (I don’t say this out of nostalgia, but because the songs seem more true to Patti’s vision and voice.) Smith is at her best when she’s not trying to make a grand statement or go for a capital-C concept. Or create rhyming couplets, for that matter. “Beneath the Southern Cross” is the most authentically Patti Smith song on the album. She speaks-sings poetry over Lenny Kaye’s gentle but insistent acoustic guitar while Tom Verlaine weaves electric embellishments around the beat. John Cale’s organ, low in the mix, provides a backbone of color and weight. The track gains momentum steadily, soaring on the wings of Jeff Buckley’s celestial backing vocals. Then, as each instrument fades away at the denouement, Patti intones, “Cross over boy, cross over”, as if to release the dead into the realm of the spirit world.
Gone Again is filled with super-terrestrial imagery: Birds, fireflies, and heavenly messengers populate the songs, lending an otherwise heavy album a sense of weightlessness and hope. For instance, “Wing” is a dreamy and elegiac song, and Smith’s vocal echoes the woozy preamble of “Birdland” from Horses. It’s in 6/8 time, which, in this case, lends it a contemplative, plodding quality. Elsewhere, “Ravens”—a folky melody sweetened by sister Kimberly Smith’s mandolin refrain—is a meditation on the singer’s own mortality: “Before our feet a feather drifts / Beyond us, it will fall / Cause time will bid and make us rise / Make ravens of us all”.
“About a Boy” is the eulogy for Cobain (the title is a reference to Nirvana’s “About a Girl”), which fittingly plumbs the depths in an eight-minute grungy dirge jam. Admittedly, though, the song is usually a skip for me because of its sustained sameness and heavy metal sludge guitars. On “My Madrigal”, Smith sings mournfully about her wedding vows, and understandably so. After all, “Til death do us part” is an abstract pledge until one partner dies; then, it can feel like betrayal. The raw, funereal emotion of the tune is hard to hear, but there’s something about its purity that makes the listener want to bear witness. Luis Resto’s piano gives it a wistful air, too, but unfortunately, the schmaltzy drums do the song a disservice.
I wondered why so many songs on the album were written in 6/8 or other multiples of three (a meter not particularly associated with death and mourning). I thought perhaps it was a numerology thing—threes having special significance for Smith. As it turns out, the answer isn’t that complicated: before he died, Fred was giving Patti guitar lessons. “He had taught me some chords, basically so I could write songs. We studied song structure and things I didn’t know a whole lot about,” she told Mojo magazine in 1996. “They’re all in waltz time, which is the only time signature we worked on so it’s the only one I know”.
Closing track “Farewell Reel” could have come from one of those early lessons. “This little song is for Fred”, Smith says at the beginning, before listing the chord progression as if she’s teaching a novice. The guitar pattern echoes that on “Beneath the Southern Cross”, played in waltz time with open chords, making for a nice bookend. The lyrics are as plain and sentimental as Smith has ever written, but the openness and pain in her voice keep the song from veering into the maudlin.
Sadness pervades Gone Again, as one would expect after a litany of losses. Yet, the songs’ themes, time and again, are about renewal, resilience, and persevering in the face of a fate that befalls us all. Smith explores these themes with stately grace and a poet’s curiosity, letting her voice meander from primal bellows to resigned whispers. The collection of musicians—most of whom had been with Smith since the beginning, supporting her wanderings—give the album a familiar sound and continuity. Like a well-functioning family, they’ve grown up together, learning to appreciate their individual strengths and quirks, all while working toward a cohesive whole.
With my friend’s comment still nagging me, I went back and listened to Horses. While nothing can ever match the visceral, world-altering effect that album had on me as a teenager, listening to it side-by-side with Gone Again allowed me to assess it with a more critical ear. Smith’s vocals sound thinner and even girlish on Horses, while her voice on Gone Again has the strength and resonance of a mature artist. Similarly, the youthful anger and bravado of Smith’s ’70s albums are replaced on Gone Again by a weary, yet resolute, worldview. The sneering blasphemy of “Jesus died for somebody’s sins / But not mine” (from “Gloria”) is not nearly as risky as the plaintive vulnerability on “Farewell Reel”, wherein she’s a singer unsure of how to keep going when the one she loves has gone: “I don’t know why / But when it rains / It rains on me / The sky just opens / And when it rains / It pours”.
Grief isn’t something that can be repaired; it’s not something one gets over then is gone for good. Rather, grief makes space for emptiness in a strange paradox, incorporating it so that each revisit is familiar yet different and perhaps a little easier. Gone Again isn’t Patti Smith’s comeback album because, well, she never really went away. Its strength lies not in returning to the past but in knowing that the road ahead will surely be traveled again.