Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Patti Smith

  • Horses [Arista, 1975] A
  • Radio Ethiopia [Arista, 1976] A-
  • Easter [Arista, 1978] A-
  • Wave [Arista, 1979] B+
  • Dream of Life [Arista, 1988] A-
  • Gone Again [Arista, 1996] ***
  • Peace and Noise [Arista, 1997] *
  • Gung Ho [Arista, 2000] **
  • Land [Arista, 2002] A-
  • Trampin' [Columbia, 2004] B+
  • Horses/Horses [Columbia/Legacy, 2005] B+
  • Twelve [Columbia, 2007] ***

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Horses [Arista, 1975]
I don't feel much intelligent sympathy for Smith's apocalyptic romanticism. Her ideas are as irrelevant to any social apocalypse I can envision as they are to my present as a well-adjusted, well-rewarded media professional. But Smith (in this manifestation) is a musician, not a philosopher. Music is different. The fact that I'm fairly obsessive about rock and roll indicates that on some sub-intellectual level I need a little apocalypse, just to keep my superego honest. That, of course, is exactly what she's trying to tell us. However questionable her apprehension of the surreal, the way she connects it with the youth cult/rock and roll nexus is revelation enough for now. This record loses her humor, but it gets the minimalist fury of her band and the revolutionary dimension of her singing just fine, and I haven't turned off any of the long arty cuts yet. A

Radio Ethiopia [Arista, 1976]
It's priggish if not stupid to complain that Radio Ethiopia's "four chords are not well played." If they were executed with the precise attack of an Aerosmith, then they would not be well played. For although there's no such thing as an unkempt heavy metal record--technocratic assurance is the soul of such music--unkempt rock and roll records have been helping people feel alive for twenty years. When it works, which is just about everywhere but the (eleven-minute) title track, this delivers the charge of heavy metal without the depressing predictability; its riff power--and the riffs are even better than the lyrics on this rockpoet experiment--has the human elan of a band that is still learning to play. A-

Easter [Arista, 1978]
As basic as ever in its instrumentation and rhythmic thrust, but grander, more martial. That's what she gets for starting an army and hanging out with Bruce Springsteen (not to mention lusting after Ronnie Spector), and she could have done a lot worse: the miracle is that most of these songs are rousing in the way they're meant to be. Meanwhile, for bullshit--would it be a Patti Smith album without bullshit?--there's the stuff about "niggers" and "transformation of waste," and as if to exemplify the latter there's a great song from Privilege, a movie I've always considered one of the worst ever. Guess I'll have to look at it again. A-

Wave [Arista, 1979]
A lot of folks just don't like Patti anymore, and so have taken to complaining about the pop melodicism ("AOR sellout") and shamanistic religiosity ("pretentious phony") she's always aspired toward. Me, I wish she'd forget she was such a bigshot, and I find "Seven Ways of Going" and "Broken Flag" as unlistenable as (and less interesting than) "Radio Ethiopia." But this is an often inspired album, quirkier than the more generally satisfying Easter--especially on the sexual mystery song "Dancing Barefoot," quite possibly her greatest track ever, and, yes, the reading for the dead pope that she goes out on. B+

Dream of Life [Arista, 1988]
At first I took this for that most painful of embarrassments, a failed sellout. Was she unwilling to waste her hard-won politics on weirdos? Proving herself a fit mother by going AOR, only she hadn't heard any AOR in about five years? Sad, sad. But soon I was humming, then I was paying attention, and now I think of this as the latest Patti Smith record. If she doesn't sound as unhinged as last time, she probably isn't, but as matrons go she's still out there. Her prophetic rhetoric is biblical just like always, with a personal feel for the mother tongue I wish more metal Jeremiahs knew to envy. The music is a little old-fashioned and quite simple, controlled but not machined, and the guitars sing. Her Double Fantasy, suggests a Detroit Smith named RJ. Only we don't formalize our equality by doling out turns, adds a Detroit Smith named Fred Sonic. A-

Gone Again [Arista, 1996]
pure as death and taxes ("Summer Cannibals," "Wicked Messenger") ***

Peace and Noise [Arista, 1997]
Good thing she's still a little nuts, because funny's beyond or beneath her ("Whirl Away," "Memento Mori"). *

Gung Ho [Arista, 2000]
always took herself too seriously, still touched with the divine ("Persuasion," "Gone Pie") **

Land [Arista, 2002]
Tacky though the best-of-plus-outtakes gambit may be, especially with another best-of filling out the box set, this is the same artist who's never released a concert album, not even as a profit taker when her income dried up during her seclusion. And though she's scattered live cuts here and there, the five-track sequence on disc two, dominated by post-1996 material that's never sounded better and capped by the inexhaustible "Birdland," is a welcome taste of the real live one she can put together next with no complaint from me. She recites a Blake poem, a Ginsberg poem, a Prince poem. She blows clarinet. She sings "Tomorrow" for her mom. And by the way, the best-of never quits. A-

Trampin' [Columbia, 2004]
No, she hasn't regained her sense of humor, but aren't you fast losing yours? "I'm no Sufi but I'll give it a whirl" makes light enough of the mystic path her political obsessions follow. And if sometimes her hymns vague out like "Trespasses" or over-generalize like "Jubilee," the boho reminisce of "In My Blakean Year" represents where she's coming from, the sweet solemnity of "Gandhi" and "Peaceable Kingdom" sings the sacred, and the amateur-Arabist rant-and-release of "Radio Baghdad" speaks poetry to power. It won't prevail. But it's a comfort. B+

Horses/Horses [Columbia/Legacy, 2005]
A live version of a revered studio album is de trop. Packaging the two together, so that anyone likely to be interested has to buy a remastered original, is wretched--what Ralph Nader was put on earth to prevent, as both he and Smith tragically forgot. However. The live version is different and in no way worse. It's bigger and fuller yet not more pretentious--more passionate, maybe. Obviously but crucially, it's also older--she's Johnny's mother, consumed by empathy rather than ecstasy. In short, Horses is now a piece of repertoire, subject to two competing interpretations. I'm glad I own both. B+

Twelve [Columbia, 2007]
Many interpretive singers have superior pipes, and some equal brains, but few match her quality of belief ("Are You Experienced?" "Smells Like Teen Spirit"). ***

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