It's weird to fault an album for lack of ambition when it opens with nothing less than an assessment of America's psychic health, but when it comes to Patti Smith, the usual standards don't apply. An almost mythic figure, Smith built a bridge between rock 'n' roll and Beat poetry, helped make the world safe for punk, recorded Horses (an album that will be on Greatest Recordings Of All Time lists for as long as such lists are made), and served as an example for every female musician who didn't want to be shackled to a piano or an acoustic guitar. Then she disappeared for a while. When she re-emerged in 1996after the death of her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smithand began a series of impressive albums and even more impressive live performances, it represented one of music's few true comebacks.
Smith's first new album in four years, Trampin' hardly counts as a misstep, but it's her least impressive showing since her return. By now, Smith and her usual band have settled into a groove, alternating quiet numbers with rockers and long, improvised, semi-spoken-word pieces. But even if it doesn't work as well here as it has before, it's still a fine groove.
Carrying over the political charge of 2000's Gung Ho, Trampin' finds Smith angry about the state of the nation but hopeful for its future. After lulling listeners with a vision of an earthly utopia on "Peaceable Kingdom," Smith explodes into 12 minutes of "Radio Baghdad," the hopefulness only feeding into the fury. Smith has never given up on idealism. When she sings about doves someday outnumbering hawks on the album-opening "Jubilee," or brings in William Blake's sublime optimism to make the case for her, the warmth makes it almost possible to overlook the fact that the songs housing the sentiments just aren't as memorable as usual. Even when Smith sounds less inspired, she's seldom less than inspiring.