newsday review of gone again

[from "Patti Smith Defies Death" by Scott Isler, Newsday, June 23, 1996]

A new Patti Smith recording is an event, and not just for its music. Gone Again is her first album in eight years, and only her second in 17 years. The reasons for this dearth are well known to her fans. In 1979, Smith married guitarist Fred Smith and settled down to raise a family. For an artist who specialized in shock tactics, Smith becoming a housewife was the ultimate esthetic outrage.

Ironically, after the optimistic, late-'80s Dream of Life, Smith had to confront death head-on. In 1994 Fred Smith died of heart failure, followed soon after by the passing of Smith's younger brother. These deaths necessarily inform Gone Again, making the new album almost the thematic reverse of Dream of Life. Half of Smith's 10 original songs on "Gone Again" include the title's irrevocable past participle; a sixth has for a refrain the phrase, "till death do us part." Subtlety has never been one of Patti Smith's strengths.

She has every right to use her art for catharsis, but does that mean we should buy it? The obsessiveness of Gone Again may limit its appeal; those who care about Smith, however, will find it a rewarding experience. Time and circumstance have imparted a deeper perspective than Smith had twirling onstage 20 years ago.

The opening title track—a drone-based chant set to a pounding American Indian rhythm—is among the album's more compelling musical compositions. Repeated use of the word "grateful" conjures up another recently departed guitarist, the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia. Indeed, the album isn't solely about Smith's personal loss: "About a Boy" was inspired by the suicide of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain.

Understandably, Smith's own bereavement draws the most touching response. "Farewell Reel" concludes Gone Again in more ways than one. Smith begins with a spoken dedication "to Fred." Then, accompanying herself on guitar with chords that he taught her, she wallows in a folksy, first-person abandonment before ending up smiling though tears.

Gone Again isn't entirely marinated in death. The upbeat "Summer Cannibals" (as with the title song, co-written with Fred Smith) is ecstatically nihilistic. The album's one nonoriginal is a stompy version of Bob Dylan's "Wicked Messenger," and Dylan's influence pervades other songs' jangly meters and mock-archaic syntax. Smith, an avowed Dylan fan, sometimes lets the hero worship elbow aside her own muse.

Overall, though, Gone Again is a triumph—not just for the return of Patti Smith, but on behalf of those she commemorates. Her still-fierce optimism is the undercurrent beneath her bleakest looks into the void. For her—and us—the operative term in the album title isn't the first word, but the second.

Copyright © Scott Isler 1996

back to babelogue