Ancient pathways, Nubian vows, bridges of magpies, whispering saints and rusty bikes piloted by writers in tattered coats are only a few of the often overwhelming array of images that Patti Smith uses to help illuminate the 12 new songs on Banga, her first CD since Trampin’ came out in 2004.
On what is certainly her best album in many, many years Smith reminds her listeners that—along with Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen—she is one of the few artists working in the popular music arena who has a literary sensibility that draws from a well of culture that goes far beyond rock’s tired paradigms. Though she’s only 65 years old, her command of language and metaphor that often demands or expects a familiarity with classical literature and thought makes her seem as if she’s from a far more archaic world than her years indicate. As in all of her work, the ghosts of the beat poets, Rimbaud and the Catholic saints inhabit and can be felt in every syllable and nuance of her new songs. On some cuts like “Amerigo” or “April Fool,” Smith sounds almost sweet, demonstrating that her voice has lost none of its flexibility over the years, while other songs like “fuji-San” and the title track bathe her listeners in the trademark angry, dancing, shivering wail that recalls some of her powerful, early work from the late ‘70s.
Over the years, Patti Smith and her band have embraced a wide array of musical styles ranging from gentle folk to distorted experimental noise, and the soundtrack that accompanies her poetry on Banga is no exception. If anything, these songs provide an overview of her musical oeuvre as they recall everything from the classic rock dynamics of early Led Zeppelin to the expansiveness of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.
What is perhaps most staggering about these new songs is the absolute commitment with which Smith sings them. Sometimes she sounds as vulnerable and pensive as the Harvest-era Neil Young (there’s a pretty if somewhat inconsequential version of “After the Gold Rush” included here); on other tracks she pumps like a wobbly kneed Mick Jagger, and those who love the more unhinged aspects of Smith’s work will thrill to the half-spoken, half-wailed, spit-through-teeth pleading distortion of “Constantine’s Dream,” the 10-minute epic that forms the backbone of Banga. It is a masterful piece of work that is as rich, compelling, deep and encompassing as anything she’s ever recorded.
If one chose to nitpick, he or she could rightfully point out that some of the images, conceptions and musical soundscapes found on Banga recall work that Patti Smith has recorded in the past. Like other iconic artists, her style has become so idiosyncratic and recognizable that it would be very difficult to drastically change it at this late date. No one should expect that. At 65, she’s not trying to re-invent herself; metaphorically speaking, she’s pruning the garden rather than planting new flowers. But, with such a range of musical styles and diverse lyrics, all of which touch upon different phases of her work, Banga is a song cycle that expresses a synthesis of all of her strengths to form one of her strongest albums.