During one of many evenings spent absorbing Patti Smith’s quietly intense new album, Gone Again, my brother-in-law called and asked what I was listening to. When I told him, he replied, ”You mean the one from Scandal?”
No, I said, that was Patty Smyth; this Smith was the woman who sang ”Because the Night” nearly 20 years ago. ”Oh, yeah — that was a good song,” he said, instantly remembering. ”It’s a good time for her to come back. That’s all I hear on the radio — broads singin’ tunes.”
Harsh, perhaps, but point well taken. There are an awful lot of fretboard-scraping women on the radio and the charts, and many of them owe something — an edge, a bohemian aesthetic, a shaggy pageboy haircut — to Smith. In the mid-’70s, when the coquettish charm of Linda Ronstadt represented rock womanhood, Smith burst out of New York with an androgynous, girl-in-the-band image and a belief in the transcendent power of music and poetry. If she always seemed a more formidable figure than record maker — try plowing through Horses now without the aid of a remote control — her stray-cat power was unquestionable.
Smith’s retirement in 1979, and her transformation into child-rearing Michigan homemaker, is still one of the most mind-blowing, controversial retirements in rock. As writer Lucy O’Brien points out in She Bop, her recent women-in-rock study, ”When maturity beckoned, [Smith] lost her nerve.” Smith didn’t make a convincing case for her career change on her 1988 comeback, Dream of Life. The record found her wearing a slew of ill-fitting hats — lullaby-singing mom, political broadsider — and the music sounded like malnourished corporate rock. It felt as if she had lost her voice, figuratively if not literally.
The Smith who returns on Gone Again after another prolonged absence is a changed woman once more. In the past seven years, a devastating number of her family and friends have died, including husband Fred ”Sonic” Smith, a brother, a former band mate, and her most celebrated intimate, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Gone Again is, not surprisingly, an album that dwells on loss. ”I don’t know why/But when it rains/It rains on me,” she sings in ”Farewell Reel,” one of several songs about her husband. She even mourns Kurt Cobain (yes, another Cobain tribute song) in the elliptical ”About a Boy,” which builds to a feedback-grating mantra, rekindling memories of Smith’s boho-outta-control work on bristling records like Easter. In each case, death is treated less as a horror than as an escape to a better, more serene place.
As insensitive as it might be to say, the succession of tragedies has lent a much-needed focus (and terseness) to Smith’s work. Death becomes her — and not merely in her lyrics. Reunited with guitarist and longtime coproducer Lenny Kaye (whose absence was felt on Dream of Life), Smith has set most of the songs to plaintive arrangements that resemble nothing so much as contemporary variations on Appalachian death ballads. Songs are structured with the roundelay melodies of folk songs, and Smith’s voice has the throaty cragginess of a woman coal miner. She sounds and looks like an extra in a John Sayles movie. The album’s second half — heavy on stark, strummed ballads like ”Wing” and ”Ravens,” which both employ images of flying above the sorrow — is particularly powerful. ”Dead to the World” even finds her having a little fun with the Grim Reaper by adopting a hillbilly twang.
What Gone Again lacks is voltage. On only a few of the 11 songs does she charge ahead like the Smith of old, although when she does — as with the warpath cry of the title track — the ground shakes. (That song, and the tame garage-band stomp of ”Summer Cannibals,” seem to address fame and American culture.) Still, it is the first Smith album without a pretentious set piece — an accomplishment in itself — and it retains a sober dignity. Maturity finally beckons in the album’s emotional pinnacle, ”My Madrigal.” A tear-jerking requiem for her husband set to piano and cello, it presents the album’s most poignant delivery and lyric (”We waltzed beneath motionless skies/All heaven’s glory turned in your eyes”).
To a new generation aware of Smith’s legend, Gone Again may sound corny, even conventional. It’s stubbornly old-fashioned in its folkie touches and Beat-tinged lyrics, and in the way her voice occasionally slips into a clogged-sinus Dylanesque whine. The music feels meditative rather than cathartic. Viscerally, it’s hard to connect this woman with the wave of feminist rockers she inspired. Smith’s impact was, and is, deeper. Now, as then, she doesn’t make a grand statement about being a woman, or a ”woman in rock.” Simply, she’s a pushing-50 widow with two children who has decided to reinvest in the healing power of music and career. Her losses are our gains. A-