Some artists get better with age, and Patti Smith is definitely one of them. With the recent success of her book, Just Kids, about her relationship with late photographer Robert Maplethorpe, Smith’s receiving the most attention she’s had since the late 1970s. I’d bet that many of those who’ve read Just Kids aren’t even very familiar with Smith’s music. This makes the timing of her newest musical album, Banga, rather perfect.
The four albums Smith’s made since her “comeback” in 1996 have pretty much flown under the radar. Many of them have some great moments on them, like her last one, 2004‘s trampin’, but they never reached the same heights as her ‘70s classics Horses, Radio Ethiopia, Easter, and Wave. Well I’m happy to say Banga is, without question, Smith’s most cohesive and satisfying album since her heyday.
Smith’s poetry and songs draw influence from all elements of the human experience, including history, nature, different cultures, and people with whom she’s enamored. The subject matter on Banga reflects this great diversity of source material. On the first track, Smith, renowned for exploring new creative worlds herself, opens by stating ‘We were going to see the world...’ in a song about Amerigo Vespucci’s voyage to the New World in 1497. There’s a poppy love song, "April Fool," featuring Smith's old friend Tom Verlaine of Television. There's "Fuji-san," a rockin’ number for the people of Japan in the wake of last year's earthquake and a classic ballad in memory of Amy Winehouse, "This Is The Girl." "Constantine's Dream" is an improvised meditation on art and nature, and “Nine” is a birthday song written for her friend Johnny Depp. My personal faves are the bluesy ballad “Maria” and the tribal and discordant title tune “Banga.”
Along with Smith’s band, the album features guest artists including guitar whiz-kid Jack Petruzzelli, Smith’s son Jackson, and her daughter Jesse Paris. The album ends with a cover of the Neil Young classic “After The Gold Rush.” Here Smith utilizes the quiet, introspective, childlike side of her vocal range in complete sync with the stark piano arrangement played by Jesse and a children’s choir that chimes in on the chorus.
If you’re already a Patti Smith fan, like myself, you’re gonna love this album to pieces. If you’re not, this new album is a great way to start. As Patti herself exclaims in the title track, “Say Banga!”
By Michael Levine