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Patti Smith

Gone Again

(Arista)

By Jim DeRogatis

During my mercifully short tenure as an editor at Rolling Stone, one of my more tedious tasks was compiling the results of the 1995 critics poll. By a ridiculous margin of eight or nine to one, Patti Smith claimed "Comeback of the Year." Yet her last original recording had been released in 1988. It should come as no surprise that now that there's a new album--Gone Again--critics are falling all over themselves to give enough accolades.

Part of the credit for the hoopla is due to the fem-crit movement, which rightly celebrates punk poetess Smith as the godmother of 90s artists such as Kathleen Hanna, Polly Jean Harvey, Liz Phair, and Courtney Love. Another reason is the sympathy vote (the Yoko factor, if you prefer), which judges Gone Again in the light of Smith's personal losses--among them her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith; her brother Todd; her longtime friend Robert Mapplethorpe; and her keyboardist Richard "DNV" Sohl. But finally, it comes down to the fact that critics and fans miss the Patti Smith of "Gloria" and "Free Money," of "Dancing Barefoot" and "Rock n Roll Nigger," and even of "Because the Night," the song Smith wrote with Bruce Springsteen and her only Top 40 hit. And this is where I have a problem, because rock 'n' roll's biggest enemy is nostalgia--whether it's for the halcyon 60s or the punk-rock 70s.

The truth is Gone Again isn't as good as any of Smith's 70s releases. Yes, her voice remains strong, distinctive, and rich with character if limited in range--the female Bob Dylan or Lou Reed. And if anything, her writing skills have gotten sharper: there are fewer cringe-worthy lines of awkward poetry, and the sentiments expressed in songs such as "Beneath the Southern Cross," "My Madrigal," and the title track are universal and open-ended, even though they're clearly inspired by the deaths of people close to Smith. (Thankfully, Smith edited the lyrics of "About a Boy," the long, plodding dirge about Kurt Cobain, taking out the embarrassing lines about Cobain being "just a boy who will never grow old" that were heard during a short east-coast tour with Dylan in December.)

Where the album falls short is the music. Smith is accompanied by longtime cohorts Lenny Kaye on guitar and Jay Dee Daugherty on drums as well as by Television's Tom Verlaine. But only the tribal, tom-heavy "Gone Again," the breezy, upbeat "Summer Cannibals," and the relatively straight cover of Dylan's "Wicked Messenger" rock out, and they do so with such weak grooves and laid-back attitudes that they would have elicited yawns from the amped-up crowd at CBGB in 1977. The rest of the 11 tunes are gentle, lulling, and mellow, full of ringing acoustic guitars, lilting rhythms, and folkie textures such as mandolin, dulcimer, fiddle, and accordion. The result is more like a mediocre Richard and Linda Thompson album than anything by the old Patti Smith Group.

Dream of Life had these same problems--remember the lullaby to Smith's son, "The Jackson Song"?--coupled with an earnest leftist spirit that simply sounded naive in the midst of the Reagan-Bush years ("People Have the Power"). Released in 1988, midway between her '79 retirement and her '96 comeback, Dream of Life was mostly ignored by critics, who didn't want to dis Smith even if they couldn't bring themselves to champion her. Now they're so overjoyed to have her back, they'll applaud anything she does.

This isn't to say that after 17 years in self-imposed exile as a suburban housewife and a period of tremendous grief and loss Smith isn't allowed to come back as a different person or to reinvent herself as an artist. But it's certainly fair to judge her new offerings by the standards she set with her own work. Smith has dealt with the issue of mortality before--for instance, on "Gloria," the first song on her first album--but in the past her inclination was to celebrate life with all the energy she could muster, even on the quieter songs, rather than to withdraw and quietly meditate. As a musing on death and dying, Gone Again is a better album than Lou Reed's Magic and Loss, but it doesn't contain anything as eloquent and powerful as "Pale Blue Eyes," let alone as life-affirming as "Gloria" or "Rock 'n' Roll."

"When I was younger, I felt it was my duty to wake people up," Smith recently told Interview magazine. "I thought poetry was asleep. I thought rock 'n' roll was asleep." Well, things aren't a hell of a lot livelier right now, and Gone Again ain't gonna stir things up. Me, I wish that Smith had raged against the dying of the light instead of serenading it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Anne Liebovitz.

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