“Banga” by Patti Smith

While she hasn’t had a true hit since 1978′s “Because The Night”, Patti Smith has come to occupy a unique position in the American music as one of the most iconoclastic, enduring, creative, and distinctive songwriters of her time. It’s difficult to review her albums because they don’t tend to compare to anything else; there are no obvious musical influences or peers. Everything is unmistakably hers. That said, in the canon of her albums, Banga is one of her best.

It’s often easy to tell upon listening to an album what the artist was listening to themselves during recording, or who they would list as one of their musical heroes. Very few stand as completely unique, not tied to any particular genre, lineage, or generation. Smith herself is frequently listed as a heroine of modern American music, and her catalogue stands very much on its own. The only references and influences you’ll catch in Banga are to artists and poets. You’ll need to keep Google handy as you listen in order to fully understand her countless references to everyone from Mikhail Bulgakov (no, I didn’t know who he was either) to Piero della Francesca. Smith’s lyrics and delivery still have the nuance and intonation of her early days as a spoken word poet, with a sort of weight and gravity given to each line that makes you wonder if (all Google-ing aside) you’re really understanding the full scope of her vision. Sometimes it’s frustrating, the amount of allusions packed into the space of one album with nothing much to ground them in reality, or at least in the common sphere of pop.

While her voice still rings with the sneering punk-rock fatigue of her 1970s beginnings, some of her rough nihilistic edges have been smoothed by time. She seems like a worried mother as opposed to the wild, androgynous being of her youth. The lead single, for example, “April Fool”, shows off her rarely-seen vulnerable side. It’s soft and pleading and it shows off her voice to great effect. She distorts her vocals so often, shrieking and belting, that we sometimes forget it’s actually classically good. The song structures here are also relatively simple and straightforward rock-and-roll, with backup from some of Smith’s old friends like Tom Verlaine and Lenny Kaye, who have been with her since the seventies. Still, her shamanistic presence elevates these songs to far more as she croons and chants meditations about the state of the world. The album closer is a cover of Neil Young’s “After The Gold Rush” rendered in a melancholy, mourning tone, complete with a children’s choir as backup.

Smith’s age and place in the world of music and art have given her a sort of right to be nobody but herself. At this point in her career, it’s unlikely that she will take some gigantic leap forward in her sound, or release anything as influential or groundbreaking as Horses. However, she’s settled into her age with an unsurprising grace. She’s already proved herself, time and time again, and thus this album serves as only a reminder of why she’s so revered. Smith is never going to be the sort of songwriter who churns out hit after hit, or reinvents herself to fit every new wave in music. She is very simply herself, and Banga is her at her best.

By Ella Zander

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