May 6, 2004

No Chivalry Here

Print More

She says it right, and she says it right away. Patti Smith’s latest, Trampin’, opens with a jubilant invocation: “Oh, glad day to celebrate/ ‘neath the cloudless sky/ Come one, come all/ gather round, discard your Sunday shoes.”

Gather round and discard your Sunday shoes. She invites you to dig your toes into America’s dirty landscape, its grimy poetry. Then she invites you to run and dance alongside her. Finally, she requests that you believe her when she says confidently, between twanging, reminiscent riffs, “come on, people/ You know what to do.”

When Patti Smith released her 1975 classic, Horses, she established herself as America’s quintessential garage-rock poet. Dutifully boisterous and unapologetic, Smith’s early music reinterpreted what it was to be punk, to be pissed, and to be poetic. Her latest release is neither punk, nor is it illegitimately or unnecessarily pissed. What it is, rather, is a familiarly poetic, passionate, and sometimes unbelieving look around our post-September 11th world. The album offers a new, reflective and refined Patti Smith — an artist who, at 57, is not tired or resigned but very much alive and unrestrained. Trampin’ does what so few explicitly political albums are able to accomplish: it demands answers in a fierce yet beautiful way.

Smith’s new album is confrontational. It scoops up discrimination, destruction, and atrocity by the handful; it raises its closed fist in the air, and it opens its fingers. Smith writes openly about the war in Iraq and about the state of American politics. No doubt, she wants not to be objective but to speak meaningfully about such things and her feelings toward them. Smith’s project, it seems, is not to weigh or to compare sides. It is not about speaking calmly or being collected or being politically correct. She writes not to appease or refrain from alienating certain groups of would-be customers. Rather, Smith aims to accuse — to kick and scream and justify every charge her howling voice makes.

There is no question that Smith’s Trampin’ is set on asking the listener questions. She does so explicitly, and she does so in every song. Her most interesting questions, though, are asked between her lines: What is it for a person to be spiritual? What does it mean to be a mother? How can we live in a war-racked world, a terror-ridden world? Smith’s stirring poetics ask us these questions. What the entire album asks, though, is a question of a different order: how does an artist write meaningfully about politics and injustice, about destruction and despair and fear? Perhaps Smith does not know that her latest begs this enormous question. Perhaps she does not know that it simultaneously, within itself, answers it.

Take “Radio Baghdad,” for example. This track seems meant to be the album’s epic, its climax. It begins with Smith chanting ferocious poetry over subtle yet expectant instrumentals. The opening lyrics recount the history of Mesopotamia, naming it the “city of light,” the “city of scholarship,” the “city of ideas,” “the perfect city — Baghdad.” She likens Baghdad to Eden. From there, about a third of the way into the 12-minute song, the guitars pick up, and the instrumentals turn fierce. And Smith starts yelling: “you came, you came through the West/ annihilating a people, and you come and want to rob the cradle of civilization/ you eat of the tree/ you send your bombs, shock and awe, shock and awe.”

There seems to be little that Smith doesn’t address on Trampin’. “Ghandi,” probably the most innovative and raw song, discusses race and discrimination, demanding that you “wake from your slumber.” The finale is perhaps the album’s prettiest, most endearing song. Smith’s daughter plays piano under her mother’s relaxed, sincere vocals. The song is a spiritual, a controlled, unobtrusive hymn; Smith repeats “trampin,’ trampin,’ trying to make heaven my home” over and over. The song climaxes with a quiet but firm “halleluiah.” The song is sweet and soulful. It’s nostalgic. It’s believable. It leaves you wondering if maybe that’s what Smith has been doing all along — trying to make heaven her home.

Archived article by Lynne Feeley
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer