Way back in 1975, Patti Smith wanted to destroy music. On her iconic album Horses, the CBGB’s punk queen distorted the familiar landscapes of rock and country music, split their tempos and made them the beds of her bizarre lyrical orgies of alien abduction and rape. The pain expressed in Horses four decades ago wasn’t just described; it took physical form in her molten arrangements and animated beat poetry, contorting and forming in ways that were both blindingly painful and irresistibly evocative.
But on her new album Banga – named for Pontius Pilate’s dog in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita – Patti Smith has changed her tune. Rather than spectacularly warping the idioms of rock out of recognition, she skillfully bridles them, and as a result Banga is a grab-bag of well-executed and thrilling rock and soul songs. Her band – led by stalwarts Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty – is predictably excellent and truly professional. Take her second track, “April Fool” — a love song, plain and simple — where the group’s proficiency is on full display. They perfect a sunny, striding groove, down to the birdsong of a guitar solo. And Smith herself sounds more tuneful than she has at almost any point in her career. Her best vocal performance comes on “This Is The Girl,” a soul waltz dedicated to Amy Winehouse, parked on Lover’s Lane with the engine running; it would be at home in The Drifters’ songbook. Smith builds a quiet storm of heartbreak, culminating in a spoken-word section Eugene Record would admire.
For a performer distinguished for her fiery and complex poetry, much of Banga manifests as raw emotion. “Maria,” with its “Little narcissus pool, drawn by its spell,” is entranced and sexy. The title track – which, fun fact, features Johnny Depp and Smith’s son on guitar – finds Smith simply rocking out, mimicking the guitar lick and shouting “shit it out on a golden commode.” It’s almost as if she wants a more visceral read on her music; in a recent roundtable for Banga, Smith explained the song by saying “The song doesn’t really have any specific meaning. It’s just a happy battle cry. A unification song, you know? ‘Banga.’ Love and loyalty between me and my band, between us and the people.” Indeed, as much as fans of Smith’s may want to hunker down with a lyric sheet and carefully dissect every stanza on this album, Banga seems to demand just as much from the brain stem as it does from the cortex.
Which is not to say that this is not the Patti Smith we knew; “Constantine’s Dream” is a dense, apocalyptic vision of environmental destruction with a “Kashmir”-like vamp that will remind some of Smith’s longer concept pieces, and “Tarkovsky The Second Stop Is Jupiter” revives the sci-fi themes Smith explored on Horses’ “Birdland.” Banga’s strongest statement is that Patti Smith has simply become a master practitioner of rock and soul music. Her songwriting prowess comes to a gorgeous head in her closing cover of Neil Young’s “After The Gold Rush.” She sounds concerned and maternal when joined by a children’s choir, who mournfully chant “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 21st century,” slightly modifying Neil Young’s prescient warning from four decades ago. On this song, and throughout Banga, Patti Smith’s voice is clear and powerful, an embodiment of her singularity as a poet and musician.