Critical discussions occasioned by Patti Smith’s recent winning of the Swedish Academy’s Polar Music Prize and the National Book Award for Just Kids (a memoir of her adventures in bohemian New York with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, in which she revealed her fondest memories of youth and, along with them, a handsome, romantic prose voice) invariably focus on Smith the icon and what she embodies, scratching away at the essential connection between her poetry, her music, her political activism, and even the personal grief that motivated her return to music in 1996. It’s the type of generous reevaluation that most artists only receive on the occasion of their death. What emerges out of it is a Patti Smith who’s a disciple of Rimbaud and a friend of Allen Ginsberg, and whose participation in the relatively undignified activity of writing rock and pop songs seems to lend so much dignity to the profession that it’s almost besides the point to ask whether or not she’s any good at it.
Outside Society therefore contributes something important to the Smith revival, which is to remind us that she was, at least for a short while, one of the best rock n’ roll musicians, and that she’s continued to make challenging and totally singular records even after her commercial relevance had flatlined for good. That is, at least, to make the most generous case for Outside Society, which stands a good chance at translating all those highbrow headlines into new fans.
The album is harder to justify from the standpoint of Smith’s longtime followers, who probably own 2002’s Land, a best-of-plus-rarities set which contains 13 of Outside Society‘s 18 tracks. The album’s liner notes include Smith’s personal recollections on each song, which adds some new value for completists, but beyond that, Outside Society is clearly aimed at the uninitiated. It skimps on Land‘s bonus material so as to remain a svelte, single-disc set, and makes a genuine improvement on the older comp by arranging the material chronologically, which is especially appropriate for an artist who on two occasions took the better part of a decade off between releases.
Sony has made a point of announcing that Smith herself had a hand in curating Outside Society, but promotional minutiae aside, the tracklist is nearly the same as Land‘s. The selections from Smith’s first four albums are identical save for one addition: “So You Want to Be a Rock N Roll Star,” a middle-tier Smith song by any measure that gives a somewhat unmerited weight to 1979’s underwhelming Wave. Her three strongest albums get just two songs apiece, meaning that the best period of Smith’s career as a musician is dispatched within the first third of the album.
“Best of” comps are always imbalanced in the favor of an artist’s post-peak material, though in this case there’s some justification: Horses, Radio Ethiopia, and Easter all ought to be heard as albums, interludes and epic recitations intact. The excerpts here present Smith’s most memorable riffs and her best vocal melodies, suggesting that Outside Society is less interested in Smith the liminal figure between rock, poetry, and performance art, than in Smith the fully committed rock n’ roller, doing punk, blues, and fiery folk as well as any musician of her generation.
The Patti Smith who returned to music briefly in 1988 and then more permanently in the late ‘90s, was moderate and tame in comparison to the manic Beatnik oracle who left indelible impressions on musicians like Bruce Springsteen, Morrissey, and Michael Stipe. Dream of Life, which Smith recorded with her husband, the MC5’s Fred “Sonic” Smith, isn’t a bad record, but it’s without a doubt the least necessary in Smith’s discography. Cut when Smith’s private life was at its least tumultuous, at a time when she was already recognized as a benevolent godmother by the female rockers of the 1980s, the album communicates little urgency—and urgency has always generated an inequitable portion of Smith’s appeal. “People Have the Power,” included here, is the album’s most enduring tune, but it’s not great even as protest anthems go. It presages the difficulties that Smith would have on returning to political rock during the second Bush presidency—namely, how to find a public register for a voice that had always sounded best as it commented on the idiosyncratic landmarks of inner space.
Misguided as it surely was, “Rock N Roll Nigger,” from 1978’s Easter, is surely a finer agit-pop specimen than anything from Gung Ho or Trampin’. It’s a botched social experiment tethered to a terrific garage-rock song, wherein Smith proclaims niggers of herself, Jimi Hendrix, Jesus Christ, and Jackson Pollack. In her dramatic reclamation, nigger would be an honorific exchanged among misfits and rebels, rather than the racial and rhetorical fault line that it was in the ‘70s and remains today. Smith was roundly flogged for the song at the time it was written, and there’s no doubt that the young left of today, steeped as it is in the idioms of multiculturalism, privilege, and identity politics, would find the gaffe even harder to forgive. The song is quintessentially Smith—and it’s still kind of shocking. An artist less naïve and ambitious would certainly not have released the song, but there’s no doubt that the hooligan Smith who didn’t know any better in 1978 was a more inspiring outsider than the NPR-approved bard she’d eventually become.
By the time Smith launched a full comeback with 1996’s Gone Again, she’d weathered a succession of personal tragedies, losing Mapplethorpe in 1989, her husband in 1994, and her brother Todd the following month. Gone Again is stark and quiet, an inspirational album that doesn’t sound at all like the adult-contemporary balladeering typically filed under “inspirational.” Its best rocker, “Summer Cannibals,” shows up here, as does the reflective “Beneath the Southern Cross,” which more effectively portrays the album’s emotional terrain. Of all of Smith’s output from the last 15 years, it’s Gone Again that stands the best chance of being rediscovered by fans. As tormented feminist rock goes, the album is certainly less essential than what Ani DiFranco was releasing at the same time, but Smith’s sagacity has never been as hard-won or as unaffected. If it’s Smith the wizened guru of the underground you want, you won’t find her in better form.
Political concerns would dominate much of Smith’s work from that point on. Like many left-leaning artists, she became increasingly outspoken as the outrages of Iraq, Abu Grahib, and Katrina piled up. Not all of her work from this era is dispensable, but neither Gung Ho nor Trampin’ is given their due here (the latter is represented only by its title track, relegating fine pieces like “Radio Baghdad” and “My Blakean Year” to obscurity). It could almost be said that Smith’s pretensions, never well-hidden, qualified her especially well for the role of poet-provocateur, but in attempting so brazenly to be for the youth of the ‘00s what Dylan was in the ‘60s, Smith displayed little of her counter-balancing humor and honesty.
The only track of much consequence to Outside Society‘s closing quartet is a cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and it’s more for the craftsmanship of Smith’s country-folk cover than for the glimpses of undiluted id that the young Smith and the young Cobain provided at their respective bests. She interrupts Nirvana’s signature song with a dense rumination on death and ancestry, subtly advancing her thesis that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” belongs as surely to the great inheritance of folk music as anything popularized by Dylan.
That cover is excerpted from 2007’s Twelve, a grim album wherein Smith fashions folk and rock songs from the last five decades into talismans against death and injustice. If that album was a failure, it’s because the nobility of Smith’s protest is so completely overshadowed by her fixation with everything that needs to be protested against, and in that sense it succumbs to despair and self-seriousness in a way that Dream of Life refused to. Even when she sings about freedom on “Trampin’,” she sounds weighed to Earth. To return to “Gloria” and “Because the Night” afterward and hear Smith channel passions as uncomplicated as young lust is, by contrast, to hear something pure and liberating in its effortlessness.
Those songs are special because they preserve a Patti Smith who until very recently seemed to be lost to time, which is to say, the same Smith who’s resuscitated in the pages of Just Kids. For most of its runtime, Outside Society captures a time when Smith’s music was as naïve, romantic, and unforced as her memoir, even if, by the end, the labored intensity of her poetry has prevailed. I’m optimistic that, with her book so warmly regarded and its film adaptation now underway, Smith has taken to wandering those parts of her psyche once again in a way that might bear rewards when she returns to the studio. It’s been four years since Twelve was released, but Smith has kept and broken longer silences.