William Blake has a lot to answer for. Never mind that the best minds of their generation ended up believing that beards and loose clothing were a sure way of defeating war and good punctuation – when Bill was sitting in trees looking for angels, he could never have imagined that, at this point in time, an album would start with the words, “In the garden – of consciousness…”.
To those who have watched [a]Patti Smith[/a] whirl along the tightrope between embarrassment and brilliance over the years, it should come as no surprise, but with her eighth album ‘Gung Ho’, the old truism that one woman’s free-menstruating beat-harpy is another’s free-spirited fire-poet has never been more cruelly highlighted. While 1997’s ‘Peace And Noise’ was a ferocious elegy for the generations racked by disillusionment, disease and death, the overspill of her mourning for husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, ‘Gung Ho’ sees her fix her wild eyes on more overtly political themes. And, God (or, y’know, whatever deity you believe exists within each and every human soul), that’s really not a happy state of affairs.
The first track, ‘One Voice’, is dedicated to Mother Teresa, something that instantly sets the charity concert alarm bells ringing. ‘New Party’ makes the not uncommon point that politicians are bad, then hammers it home with all the finesse of an accident-prone DIY enthusiast, while ‘Strange Messengers’, where Patti partly assumes the persona of an original African slave and then berates ‘her’ progeny for smoking crack, is – ill-advised to the point of offensiveness. It’s a terrible pity: when she stops politicising like a councillor on a complementary therapy summer camp, there’s music here that’s full of the febrile commitment and unashamed passion that marked her out as a valid icon in 1975.
‘Boy Cried Wolf’ is a full-moon snarl, extended lycanthropic metaphors and rhythmic density almost making a ritual stomp round the sweat lodge seem like an appealing lifestyle option; ‘Lo And Beholden’ is ‘Because The Night’ muted and battered by sustained heartbreak, while ‘China Bird’ hooks a fine, wintery story from the darkest rivers of folk tradition. And her voice is, as always, astonishing; rough with the feral quality of a woman who has spent the past ten years living wild in the heating ducts of The Pentagon rather than hanging out with Michael Stipe.
Yet that’s partly the problem – like a strong magnet with iron filings, that gruff, mercurial presence is almost enough to realign any reservations. Resist: already self-indulgent, the last thing she needs is more allowances. It might not be the Mother Teresa way, but if you need to love her, for God’s sake make it tough love.