Highlights: April Fool, After The Gold Rush, Just Kids (bonus track)
New album by Patti Smith, no less. Named after Pontius Pilate’s dog (from Bulgakov’s novel), containing song titles like “Seneca” and “Tarkovsky”. Plus a 10-minute spoken word epic called “Constantine’s Dream”. If that doesn’t sound pretentious or at least mildly intimidating, I don’t know what will. As you would expect, Banga is an expansive, impressionistic monster of an album, every bit a product of the artist who came up with Horses way back when. Whatever you might think of it, Banga is a success. The frustrating part is that way too often it comes at the expense of that intriguing but rare and elusive (in Smith’s case) element: strong melody.
Hints of certain creative stagnation can easily be noticed in the 8-year gap (for all the good it did, 2007’s Twelve was an all covers record). Smith’s previous collection of original songs was Trampin’ from 2004 – a surprisingly brilliant album with some of her most gripping and inspired tunes in quite some time.
But guts, intensity, confidence, clarity of vision – those things cannot be forfeited. Not in 8 years, not ever. And Banga sounds so good – vocally as well as instrumentally Patti and her band (Tony Shannahan, Lenny Kaye, others) are in fantastic shape. The album drifts masterfully from rocking and driving (title track with its see-sawing guitar, “Fuji-san”) to ruminative and downbeat (cover of Neil Young’s “After The Gold Rush” is gorgeous, and so is the Amy Winehouse-dedicated “This Is The Girl” – Mulholland Drive, anyone?). It has its poppy moments (like the lead single “April Fool”, easily the catchiest, most immediate song on the album), but can also get meandering and just plain boring (“Tarkovsky (The Second Stop Is Jupiter)” is expendable). And then of course there’s the centerpiece, “Constantine’s Dream”. Which is actually quite amazing: it starts like a lovely ballad and then expands into this pretentious, improvisational, propulsive poetry piece that in all honesty sounds less gruesome and a lot more magnetic than it should.
Banga is a complete album by a fulfilled artist. I doubt that it will add much to her legacy (but then neither did Trampin’) or bring her new converts, but you just have to admire this album. Its missteps are actually so organic that saying no to one second or intonation on the album would be akin to saying no to Patti Smith. High 7, low 8. Will definitely come back to it at some point.