Not until the fifth track on Patti Smith’s new album Banga are you reminded why she’s considered one of the foundational figures of American punk rock. “You like that?” she utters at the outset of the song, and then sneers a few verses in a disaffected monotone, raw and powerful like the music she and her downtown New York compatriots wrote in the mid ’70s. Her lyrics ring with a bitterness, full of graphic and visceral images of disgust: “The salivating salvation’s long so long so…”
The song in question, the title track “Banga”, is about a dog, specifically Pontius Pilate’s dog in The Master and Margarita by Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov. Smith’s lightly lascivious lyrics crystallize into an esoteric literary reference, one of many throughout her career dating back to her landmark 1975 album, Horses. That contradiction – graphically real but tempered by an un-self-conscious academic streak – is a perfect summation of Patti Smith in 2012, and also of Banga, her 10th studio album. She’s still the doyenne of downtown and a punk rock icon, but she’s as much a poet, writer, and artiste (with just the right amount of pretension that the alternate spelling conveys) as she is rock goddess these days.
Banga isn’t a punk rock album, although much of the same emotional content that goes into the punk ethos is apparent in Smith’s unpolished vocals, in her critical take on colonialism in the lead track “Amerigo”, and in moments such as the heavy metal strumming of “Constantine’s Dream” or the gnarly distorted guitars of “Banga”. Yet through the first half of the album, it’s a classic pop/rock sound that Smith favors, as on the poppy “April Fool”, the single featuring the clean-toned beauty of Tom Verlaine’s guitar arpeggios, or on the bright distorted guitars of “Fujisan”.
In the second half of the album, Smith journeys to darker musical and lyrical territory, but it comes across in a twisted intellectualism, so representative of that contradiction of the 65-year-old Smith. Spoken word tracks like “Tarkovsky (The Second Stop is Jupiter)” and the epic ten-minute “Constantine’s Dream” – an imagined scene in the life of Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca — feature Smith’s heaviest music on this record. Rather than her punky melodic stylings, her deep voice resonates as she reads her own poetry in time with the rhythm on “Tarkovsky”, a languid jam at the opiatic tempo of classic Velvet Underground tunes, with atmospheric guitars rising to a peak and then building to a virtuosic guitar solo. It all frames Smith’s colorful verse as she passionately recites “quivering, the blistering soar of the fifth planet. Wait! Stop! Don’t forget!”
If anything, Banga shows Smith’s versatility beyond her typical hard rock métier. There’s a folk-rock flair on some tracks that suits her husky vocal and steely attitude to a tee: “Nine”, a birthday song for friend Johnny Depp, features twangy guitars that almost sound like Jack White and a minor-key folk melody, while the acoustic guitar strumming and chirping electric guitar of “Mosaic” evoke a Greek or Balkan sound. Smith closes the album by altering the lyrics to a bare cover of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” — “Look at mother nature on the run in the twenty-first century” – imploring her listeners with a sense of importance, as though she’s telling us something we need to hear.
In a sense, we do need to hear this album, not only because it’s good, but because Smith is a living legend, and she’s doing spectacular things that most younger artists could never pull off. But there’s nothing on Banga that is going to blow you away, nothing like her debut album Horses that changed Michael Stipe’s life, nothing that is going to make you wonder why you haven’t been listening to Patti Smith all your life.
At the same time, why haven’t you been listening to Patti Smith all your life?
Too often, when an aging rock star releases a new album, it becomes a ritual for upholders of the classic rock canon to applaud the material and lament the current state of music. Of course, without Patti Smith, there wouldn’t be the current state of music: no R.E.M., no Riot Grrrl scene, no ’80s post-punk sound that modern indie rockers are so eager to resuscitate.
However, Banga doesn’t just preserve a petrified version of Patti Smith circa Horses; rather, it’s fresh and innovative, albeit disjointed. Smith explores new ground, not content to simply rehash her tired old self, but more interested in presenting her new identity: poet, folk-rocker, activist, mother, hopeless romantic, and occasionally, punk badass.
Essential Tracks: “Banga”, “April Fool”, “Mosaic”, “Tarkovsky (The Second Stop is Jupiter)”, and “Constantine’s Dream”