Former punk iconoclast Patti Smith once said the older she got, the more she appreciated beauty in the mundane—ordinary folks who performed their jobs exceptionally well, like a dry cleaner who took pride in delivering perfectly-pressed shirts every single time. Smith’s own craft has matured along similarly classy lines. Lately, her prose and poetry have received numerous awards, both at home and abroad, and she’s just explored the touchy subject of 9/11 via her drawings, silk-screen prints and silver-gelatin-processed Polaroids. This grande dame even helped launch the Tate Gallery’s exhaustive William Blake exhibit in London. Gone, then, is that cocaine-eyed firebrand who glared out from the cover of Smith’s ragged 1975 debut, Horses.
And in its stead? A wiser, mellower malcontent—as Smith appears on her new Trampin’—with roughly the same amount of Horses steam, but delicate, gracious new ways of releasing it. She no longer needs to scream to be heard, which is certainly becoming, if not always entertaining. For example, the half-spoken, half-quasi-blues “Radio Baghdad” pushes its “Extend your hand” metaphor way past its neighborly parameters into heavy-handed pedantic territory. It’s neither informative nor topical—just more rehashed headlines that have already been ground into grist. Smith is at her most awkward when she attempts to emulate that ’70s-punk stance on the tribal stomp “Jubilee” and the AC/DC-ish “Stride of The Mind.” But when she treats her topics—and tones—with adult-size kid gloves, the results are almost magical. Smith tips her hat to the Tate with “My Blakean Year,” a sonnet set to a tick-tock beat and purple poetry like “One road was paved in gold / One road was just a road.” “Trespasses” treads through traditional English folk, “Mother Rose” ching-chings along on a taffy-tambourine rhythm, and the title track—an old Gospel cover—wafts past on pliant piano chords, played by Smith’s daughter Jesse. A gorgeous processional, “Cartwheels,” was penned for Jesse, and is brimming with genuine motherly concern: “Want to grasp what brings you down / Open up those eyes of brown.” Smith’s once-baying voice has somehow grown stronger through the years, more adept at wreathing its way into lyrical emotion.
A gentle folk-fueled ballad, “Peaceable Kingdom,” finds Smith at her passionate best, subtly praying for a Rousseau-serene world-peace setting, firmly believing that one day frail humanity might allow it to occur. Fat chance, of course. Not as long as there’s fossil fuel to be pirated. But at least Smith has the optimism—and well-seasoned wisdom—to dream of some future Eden.