philadelphia inquirer review of gone again

[from "Patti Smith Returns, Bent But Unbroken," by Tom Moon, The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 16, 1996]

Patti Smith has earned the right to mourn. Considering what she's been through these last few years—the deaths of her husband and collaborator, Fred "Sonic" Smith; her brother Todd; and her artistic soul mate, Robert Mapplethorpe—recording her first album in eight years seems a logical way for Smith to cope with tragedy.

But even those expecting a torrent of unexpurgated torment may not be prepared for the groan that tears through the ballad "Wing," one of 10 original songs on her brilliant and tender Gone Again (Arista), in stores Tuesday.

It's a death groan, a sound from the depths, cold and bitter and hard and tuneless. And though it lasts only a few measures, it hovers over the album's more tempered moments like a wounded animal's cry. It's the voice of grief itself, a striking interruption of "Wing"'s message of hope and vision of heaven.

That wracked, cracked groan—one of few outbursts on this peaceful, contemplative work—is among the signals that the 49-year-old Smith has undergone life-changing upheaval. Once, this poet and performance artist dispensed her aloof truths from behind a suit of leather that served as her emotional armor. Her vocal snarls were part of the package. Now, in a voice that is calm and surprisingly poised, she argues that growth comes when we drop the attitude and submit to life's experiences.

Especially death.

After years of poetry that knew no limits, and was set atop raw rock and roll that acknowledged no limits, Smith returns by grappling with the notion of a finite end.

The fragility of life is one of the things she's learned about since the early '80s, when she walked away from stardom to raise two children. (She reappeared on a 1988 collaboration with her husband, Dream of Life.) But Smith doesn't treat this wisdom as precious or special. She shares it through simple lullabies and elegies concerned with realities most youth culture seeks desperately to escape.

Retooling three-chord rock to fit her meditative mood, Smith has created a song cycle with universal resonance. The compositions on Gone Again can all be viewed as part of Smith's healing process, but none feels insular or closed.

Instead, Smith claws through her loss to discover unexpected inspiration. "About a Boy," her expression of grief over Kurt Cobain's suicide, leads us to appreciate the Nirvana lead singer's visionary contributions. The elliptical "Boy" is an eight-minute crescendo: Starting with an indeterminate guitar drone, it builds methodically, one arpeggio at a time, until it reaches the controlled fury of the final verse. Here, Smith employs the measured tones of religious ritual: "From a chaos raging sweet, from the deep and dismal street; toward another kind of peace, toward the great emptiness."

Elsewhere, Smith sings with arresting earnestness, as though she feels a responsibility to get her songs across and is willing to be more delicate in order to do so. She is grateful to be a survivor: She sings in a celebratory, neo-country twang about having her senses reawakened after being "Dead to the World." Her voice merges with a cello on the doleful chorus of "My Madrigal" (a repetition of the words "till death do us part") and creates a plain, forthright beauty unlike anything she's done before. She playfully exaggerates the grunted chorus of the single "Summer Cannibals."

At every turn, Smith's musicians—and guests Jeff Buckley, John Cale and others—find ways to reinforce the spirit of her songs. Drummer Jay Dee Daugherty and guitarists Tom Verlaine and Lenny Kaye, longtime Smith associates, shape her poetry through a combination of classic rhythm riffs and contemporary musical devices. There are powerful, dissonant drones topped with wonderful guitar feedback; brief, noisy freakouts; and moments of pensive, almost ambient, repose.

For all the moments of catharsis, the emphasis never strays from the songs. Smith may have had an agenda when she sat down to write, but in her unburdening she did not neglect her craft: Gone Again is full of spare, painfully exposed melodies and disciplined songs organized around sparkling internal logic. In order to lead listeners to the revelations of "Ravens," "Wing" and "About a Boy," Smith knows that she must make every step clear. Like many of her earlier works, Smith's new works are journeys. Tinged with sadness and informed by the knowledge that time is precious, they're the product of emotional blows that could easily have numbed Smith's spirit. Yet the songs wind up sounding remarkably triumphant.

The closing "Farewell Reel," a delicate tune dedicated to her late husband, is a perfect example of Smith's determination to struggle onward. Accompanying herself with acoustic-guitar chords Fred taught her shortly before he died, Smith looks at her suddenly altered life and decides that things will somehow work out.

"We're only given as much as the heart can endure," she declares philosophically, sounding like an artist ready for the next challenge.

Copyright © Tom Moon 1996

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