As someone who has not listened to much of Patti Smith‘s work, but am aware of her fame as a poet, I went into listening to her new album Banga with somewhat virgin ears.
Smith is not an amazing singer by any means, but has a sing-speak delivery that fits with the bohemian image that has represented her throughout her career. Opening track “Amerigo” shows off her unique style. “April Fool”, the album’s first single, is a more traditional song, as Patti asks “Come, be my April fool”. It’s a nice love song, but doesn’t prepare listeners for the chanting opening for “Fuji-san”, which evolves into a guitar-strummed rocker. The lyrics are obtuse, calling out to mountains, and asking “what will a poor boy do?”
“This is the Girl” sounds like an old school slow dance that would have fit in the 50’s. The following title track, “Banga”, shifts gears again, sounding like a rough and tumble Clash song as Smith asserts “…the road to Heaven is true, true blue” before a shouted chorus of “Say Banga” blasts out. Smith has often been considered a godmother of punk rock, and “Banga” is a reminder of how she got this title.
One of the prettiest and saddest songs is “Maria”, as the chorus goes “I knew you when we were young. I knew you, now you’re gone”. Possibly about her late husband, the only issue with the song is that the dynamic between the sung chorus and spoken verses almost make the song funny. This is not necessarily Smith’s fault, but more that of the hundreds of parodies done of pretentious, spoken word artists. It’s made it more difficult to take spoken word pieces seriously, no matter how true the emotion behind them may be.
The acoustic Americana of “Mosaic” has some excellent guitar playing, but is thrown off by Smith’s preacher-like delivery. I also have trouble being drawn into the Doors-like “Tarkovsky (The Second Stop is Jupiter). Psychedelic, jazzy music backing an abstract poem…maybe if I was on drugs?
It’s difficult to review an artist as unique as Patti Smith. Like other talented and eccentric musicians (see Tom Waits, Frank Zappa), she is not interested in making commercial-friendly pop songs, but makes it clear she has the talent to do so if she wishes. Her music is an art, and like all art, not everyone is going to relate to or understand it. There is plenty to love and appreciate on Banga, but if you’re like me, and not a hardcore Smith devotee, you may find yourself adrift with some of the musical directions she takes.