Patti Smith: Trampin’

Patti Smith

It’s certainly meant as a compliment when in reviewing any new Patti Smith record, critics call her a “rock ‘n’ roll poet” or a “priestess”, but it has the effect of embalming her, promising that listening to her albums will be like a dutiful trip to English class or church. Sure, she frequently erupts into spoken-word mantras, incantory phrases that seem to be straining for something primal, seeking to make sheer repetition mystical. And her phrasing occasionally has the stilted cadences of poetry slams and creative writing seminars. And yes, this album has a song called “My Blakean Year”. So, okay, maybe she encourages this label, but that doesn’t mean it need be slavishly applied.

Also, it’s probably meant to remind readers of Smith’s claim to eternal significance that her revelatory 1975 debut album Horses is invariably mentioned; however, this, too, tends to distract us from the work at hand, redirecting us to a record that exists at an ineffable stratum with such albums as Exile on Main St. and Are You Experienced? and London Calling, albums so repeatedly rewarding and massively important, so fundamental to the evolution of rock that they annihilate anything compared to them. For years, Bob Dylan has been subject to this problem, with each of his new releases withering in the shadow of Blood on the Tracks.

It’s the same for Smith. Relating any of her recent albums to Horses immediately begs the question, Why aren’t I listening to Horses instead of this? There’s no way to exhaust the potential of that classic; any invocation of it is a de facto demand to consider it afresh. Mentioning it in reviews is ultimately a disservice to the record actually under consideration. And even though there’s a good chance no one would be paying any attention at all to Smith’s releases if not for Horses, her recent albums probably ought to be judged on their own particular merits and not been seen as mere afterthoughts, distant echoes of legend. Besides, if you were to compare Trampin’ with one of her previous albums, Radio Ethiopia or Easter would likely seem much more apt. As with those albums, the songs can seem to stretch to unjustifiable, indulgent lengths, the limited chord palette and the rudimentary/freeform song structures feels less like inspired primitivism than a disappointing lack of musical imagination and the lyrics less compellingly impressionistic than they are stridently sententious. But that comparison is unfair, too — Smith’s weaker albums provide just as convenient and misleading a template as her best one.

More pertinent to Trampin’ than her previous albums themselves is the sheer authority her 30 critically lauded years allows her to bring to whatever she attempts. The confidence is evident everywhere, and compels you to listen even when it seems like there’s nothing there to sustain such brazenness. The opening track, “Jubilee”, lumbers along at a medium tempo with a confident authority, Smith’s voice sounding as resounding as ever, under exquisite control as she calibrates it to the expression of a diverse array of emotion — tenderness, zeal, regret, joy, anticipation, all communicated with subtle nuances in timbre. Even flat lines like “Let freedom ring” are able to convey something surprising with each new iteration.

“Gandhi”, a slow-building nine-plus minute epic encouraging political activism exemplifies this confidence. It’s clear that she’s completely invested to the words she sings, giving them unmistakable passion and not a single trace of embarrassment or uncertainty. So when she shouts, “Long live revolution!” it doesn’t sound trite, it feels like a call to arms. However, the music, with its long, repetitious crescendo is so hypnotizing, it makes it seem as though Smith is suggesting that revolutionary fervor is understood best as a trance state. This makes her stance seem a bit ambiguous, making us wonder if she means to advocate revolution to the point of being committed past the necessity of thought, or reveal revolutionaries as a bit brainwashed, no longer consciously committed to a cause but centripetally sucked into it by an irresistible rhythm, an aural analogue for mob frenzy. “Radio Baghdad”, the other extended track, attempts to view American imperialism from the ground level, employing the point of view of Iraqis amidst the wreckage. As dubious as that might sound (won’t that be preachy? how in the world can she imagine what Iraqis might feel?) it ends up being pretty compelling, with Smith taking chances few others would ever think to venture. You end up forgetting about the implausible premise, carried along by the conviction in her voice.

While Smith’s voice teases out unexpected depth from quotidian phrases and familiar, all-too-justified outrage with current American politics, the band’s music can’t do the same with the vintage rock riffs recycled here. Gentle, discursive tracks like “Mother Rose”, the peaceful, meditative “Cartwheels”, and the lullaby-like acoustic ballad “Trespasses” are balanced against more straightforward rockers such as “Stride of the Mind” and “Cash”, which helps keep the moods on Trampin’ varied. But the music on these tracks is a bit too no-nonsense, almost polite in its steady familiarity. “Peaceable Kingdom” is about as inconspicuous as anything you’d hear on a Sarah McLachlan record; it seems written to be NPR bumper music. These staid, comfortable songs undermine the plea for activism and involvement expressed everywhere else on the record, offering listeners an easy way out — into the distracted, disengaged enjoyment adult-alternative radio reliably provides — from confronting the challenging aspects of her message here.


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