Patti Smith is one of the rare pop artists whose work seems like it should come with footnotes—or at least hyperlinks to Wikipedia articles. Smith’s new album Banga is her first collection of new songs since 2004, and it’s one of her most immediately engaging, with a handful of relatively straightforward rockers and ballads like “April Fool,” “This Is The Girl” and “Maria,” played by Smith and some of her old friends and family, including Lenny Kaye, Jay Dee Daugherty, and Tom Verlaine. As Smith and her sidemen have gotten older, they’ve developed a command of their craft that wasn’t quite as present when they were ’70s upstarts, but that doesn’t mean that the music has become stiff and slick. A Patti Smith “song” is still more like a thoughtful journal entry crossed with a piece of performance art than like a Billboard-bound 45. On Banga, for example, Smith speak-sings about explorers, missionaries, mountains and Russians, and adopts the role of an aboriginal medicine woman: chanting out folk history, praying for guidance, and offering reassurance to her people.
That’s what has made Smith such a unique and beloved figure in rock history: her ability to turn an album into an experience, and her use of the primitive to construct complicated meditations on creativity, immediacy, and centuries of human endeavor. When Smith exploded out of New York’s proto-punk scene in the early ’70s, she was the rock ‘n’ roll version of a French New Wave filmmaker, using art to explicate other art. By the time Banga gets to its album-closing cover of Neil Young’s “After The Gold Rush”—an already elegiac song rendered as a melancholy cautionary tale, complete with children’s choir—Smith has delivered nearly an hour of those kinds of songs. There’s “Amerigo,” about the folly of trying to bring religion to the already free people of an unspoiled new world; “Fuji-san,” a desperate plea to the gods who control the movement of the Earth; “Tarkovsky (The Second Stop Is Jupiter),” a free-form riff on an avant-garde filmmaker’s sci-fi visions; and the 10-minute “Constantine’s Dream,” which attempts to explain how the folly and wonder of the 21st century has been predicted and prearranged. In Smith’s discursive, complexly referential world, it’s not always easy to know whether lines are meant to be celebratory or sad. But then, that’s the pleasure in being a Smith fan: enjoying the beat and mood of a song, and then consulting the study guide.