There’s always something extra specially rewarding about hearing a great artist releasing new material that sits proudly alongside their best work. And that’s exactly what Patti Smith has done with her new album Banga, her first release of original material in eight years and her best in a long, long time.
Recorded last year in the suitably classic surroundings of Electric Ladyland Studios, Banga follows on from 2007′s covers record and 2004′s very political Trampin’, neither of which were bad albums, but both lacked a certain magic that has always been there in Smith’s best recordings.
From the spoken-word start of Amerigo, it’s obvious that this is an album that harks back to the days of Horses, though perhaps with a slightly calmer, more reflective artist at the heart of it. Certainly the guitar work of Lenny Kaye brings that ‘classic alternative rock’ sound that fits Smith’s vocals so perfectly, and there’s almost a Sonic Youth feel to some of the tracks, though the vocals could hardly be anyone else.
You can see why April Fool was the lead single from the album, as it most sounds like a catchy Patti Smith pop song, but it’s remarkable how immediately accessible pretty much all of Banga is. That isn’t to say that there isn’t depth to any of it, but sometimes ‘intelligent music’ seems to be made to be also unlistenable, and Smith has been guilty of this at times, but here she sounds comfortable making the kind of music everyone wants to hear from her.
Lyrically, she’s on good form too, with a blend of songs like This Is The Girl (apparently about Amy Winehouse and very poetic work like Tarkovsky (The Second Stop Is Jupiter), which I couldn’t even begin to dissect, other than to presume it’s about Andrei Tarkovsky. And Jupiter. Importantly, though, even though I don’t really understand it, the music that drives it on adds a lot to the words to make it one of the highlights of the album.
Two other impressive tracks showcase the two sides of Smith’s musical personality. Maria is an emotional-sounding ballad that is apparently to do with the actress Maria Schneider but certainly has themes of loss and possibly ageing, while Constantine’s Dream is an epic 10 minute poem about the painting by Piero della Francesca. Obviously. It’s certainly the most challenging piece here, but still sounds great, and is still exactly what we come to Patti Smith albums expecting.
After all that, it’s perhaps a little odd that she closes Banga with a fairly straightforward cover of After The Gold Rush by Neil Young. It’s a great song, of course, and she delivers it perfectly, but if there’s a thematic reason behind it, I must have missed it. Still, it’s a very minor quibble, because Banga is not only the best album Patti Smith has released in a long while, it’s one of the best albums anyone has released this year so far. And when a legend delivers something so timely, so rewarding and so reflective of their talents, the music world does seem like a better place for it.
One of the fun things about being a Neil Young fan is that you never quite know what you're going to get when a new album comes out. Will it be a masterpiece or an ill-advised bout of experimentation? Americana certainly sounds like the latter, hooking up again with Crazy Horse to provide their take on old-timey American folk songs. And the British national anthem...