gone again review in boston globe

[from "A Somber Patti Smith Works Through Grief" by Jim Sullivan, Boston Globe, June 21, 1996]

Patti Smith is ubiquitous, today's cover girl, her pretty, angular face and her long gray-streaked hair appearing on pages where you're used to spotting Alanis Morissette or Tori Amos.

Undoubtedly some of the younger alt-rock fans out there are wondering why. Smith reclaimed ``My Generation'' from The Who in 1975 for her generation— suggesting elders not just ``f-f-fade away'' but do something cruder—but to today's rock generation, well, she's an elder herself. Smith may just be a name floating in the mist of rock history.

Yet, maybe they heard R.E.M. play her seminal Horses album before their shows on their last tour. Maybe they're vaguely aware of her reputation, the respect she has from Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and former Television leader Tom Verlaine. And there's the "godmother of punk" sobriquet that gets tossed around, ranking her up there in the Iggy Pop/Lou Reed pantheon.

Still, why the hoopla?

Essentially, it's the recognition and, yes, celebration, of the very fact that Smith, 49, is back among us, part of the 1990s music scene, and vital once again.

There were those who were never certain this moment would happen—a new album, intimate readings, rock concerts, a public life. Smith was active from the mid-1970s to 1979, came back in 1988 (to mixed reviews) with less fire in her gut with Dream of Life. No tour. Then, withdrawal. We thought we'd lost her.

Thus, Smith's reemergence is a little more cause for excitement than, say, the return of George Michael. Michael was a self-proclaimed indentured servant to a former record company, a martyr. Smith was an exile by choice. Seemingly having had her say, she was raising her children with her husband Fred (Sonic) Smith, ex of the MC5, in a Detroit suburb. She wasn't completely on the mommy track. She wrote, she painted, she learned (rudimentary) guitar from her husband.

Gone Again (Arista) is the result of that gestation period. It is, on the whole, a pretty somber, bittersweet affair and that's not startling. Smith lost her husband, her brother Todd, and her best friend, Robert Mapplethorpe. She felt for kindred spirit Kurt Cobain and wrote a gorgeous ebb-and-flow song called "About a Boy" for him. Tears may well up slightly during the graceful, elegiac "My Madrigal," with Smith singing "We waltzed beneath God's point of view/knowing no ending to our rendezvous/we expressed such sweet vows/Oh till death do us part." And, there's "Wing," where Smith lifts her spirit up to heaven, floating and free.

The album's first single, "Summer Cannibals," is a curdling, catchy gem. As guitarist Lenny Kaye churns out a staccato melody line, Smith launches this image barrage: "I was down in Georgia nothing was as real as the street beneath my feet descending into air/The cauldron was a-bubbling, the flesh was lean and the women moved forward like piranhas in a stream they spread themselves before me and offering so sweet and they beckoned and they beckoned 'Come on darling, eat!'" That's as vivid a depiction of predatory sexuality as you might want. Smith tears into the "Eat! Eat!'" part with particular passion, reminding us that her voice is one of the sexiest in rock.

Mostly, though, Smith is not operating in the high gear of poetic spewing. And "Summer Cannibals'" is somewhat atypical of the album. There's no anthem approaching the ferocity of "Free Money" or "Because the Night." Smith and her band still ride the garage rock/art rock bridge, but there are country inflections and a spare, acoustic overtone. It is not, though, soft. It's got more grit and edge than Dream of Life. There's sadness, anger, a sense of transcendence. Her version of Bob Dylan's "Wicked Messenger," which she sang during the concerts she played with Dylan last year, kicks hard. Smith can bust out when she wants to. But she's clearly more enamored of quiet spaces, introspective musings, with instrumentation that supports her thoughts gently.

Gone Again, like Lou Reed's Magic and Loss, will resonate particularly with those of us who've lost people close to us, and tried to piece together a path that makes sense. Enduring grief—even embracing it—is part of the process. If this makes Smith an adult rocker—more at home on so-called AAA adult-alternative radio than modern rock radio—so be it. There is something to be said for depth of experience, for the beauty in sadness. It's not about quick sex in a movie theater—Smith went down a similar road a long time ago on Horses—but about coping, surviving and, maybe, thriving.

[photo caption: There's sadness, anger, a sense of transcendence. Smith can bust out when she wants to. But she's clearly enamored of quiet spaces, introspective musings, with instrumentation that supports her thoughts gently.]

Copyright © Jim Sullivan 1996

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