The names Patti Smith and Jim Morrison fit so nicely next to each other on a page. A self-proclaimed disciple, Smith became a sober, more coherent living extension of the messy myths Morrison left behind in the early ’70s. Both are poets but Smith’s vision has always been less self-absorbed or intentionally grand.Years have past since Smith visited Morrison’s grave in Paris or wrote songs for him, but the latest example of their connection is Gung Ho. It is Smith’s third album in less than four years, her most prolific period since the late ’70s. She has said that the album is her celebration, and from the opening track, “One Voice,” things seem to be oddly uplifting and almost hippie-like. In a call for unity, Smith’s unabashedly seasoned alto sings, “If he be mute, give him a bell…Lift up your voice!” Lone guitar riffs recall Robby Krieger’s ominous brand of classic rock. The first half of the carefree waltz “Upright Come” sounds suspiciously similar to the meter and melody of the Doors’s “Wintertime Love.” The song then takes a turn toward harder rock, its lyrics implying that “united action” is more productive than the “love one another” attitude of the ’60s and ’70s. In an interesting twist, she seems to take a swipe at fallen idols like Morrison himself: “Wasted icons, wasted lives.”
Smith covers unusually optimistic territory on several tracks: the Blondie-esque “Gone Pie” is a surprisingly upbeat and life-affirming track; “China Bird,” a touching reflection on love and loss; and “Grateful,” with its renouncement of the physical world (“Ours is just another skin/That simply slips away/You can rise above it/It will shed easily”).Smith then turns her sadness toward a much greater social and political platform. “Boy Cried Wolf” criticizes our twisted need to build saviors and subsequently destroy them: “Oh the story’s told, been told, retold/From the sacred scriptures to the tabloids.” It’s an insightful comment on our culture’s obsession with the personal affairs of celebrities and politicians. Smith attacks capitalist excesses and corruption (“Dust of diamonds making you sneeze”) in the quick-paced “Glitter in Their Eyes,” which features Michael Stipe on backing vocals. Smith quips viciously, “Dow is jonesing at the bit/42nd Disney Street.”
Smith’s political exhortation doesn’t always work though. The idea behind the gratuitous eight-minute “Strange Messengers” is brilliant; Smith speaks as the ghost of an African-American slave scolding black criminals and drug addicts, but her words miss out on an opportunity and are insulting instead: “Smoking crack, crack!/That’s how you pay your ancestors/All those dreams go up in your pipe, up in smoke!” Her lyrics imply that poverty-stricken black people are selfish and ungrateful of their ancestry rather than the product of a racist, dysfunctional society. “New Party” is another socially conscious track with good intentions but Smith stumbles her way through a painfully oversimplified political commentary: “Think we’re gonna need a new party…The world’s troubles are a global concern.” It sounds like the Green Party commissioned her to write their anthem with nothing but slogans and propaganda. She does, however, remind us that she’s first and foremost a poet: “Why don’t you fertilize my lawn with what’s running from your mouth?” she asks.
Gung Ho is about America, and like Morrison, Smith is an American poet. The title track of her eighth album plants “the seed of revolution,” painting the portraits of various leaders (although it’s unclear where one story ends and the next begins). She speaks of Vietnam, colonialism, imperialism, and seemingly failed revolutionaries. Imbedded throughout her stories are the chilling sounds of helicopters and a methodical chanting, “Gung Ho!” It ends with a call for “One more revolution/One more turning of the wheel.” Gung Ho is Smith’s flawed yet admirable attempt to keep it spinning in the age of change.