For all its surface fury, punk rock has always had a surprising metaphysical aspect. In New York in the mid-Seventies, when Tom Verlaine and Patti Smith were friends struggling to remake themselves as artists — Verlaine with his band Television, Smith as a poet — their shared tastes in reading, from Rimbaud to Paul Bowles, helped shape a unified aesthetic with definite spiritual aims. The flowering of “sonic punk” in the last few years, in the guise of bands such as Sonic Youth, has been part of the same process, a sort of philosophy of sound.
Dream of Life is Patti Smith’s first record in some nine years, and the first fruit of her artistic collaboration with her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith. Playing in the late Sixties with the MC5, Fred Smith crafted a resonating sonic architecture: a soaring Gothic cathedral of electric-guitar harmonics, constructed on a foundation of gut-level rock & roll throb, which could induce listeners to surrender as in some ancient tribal rite. Together the Smiths began recording Dream of Life after spending years in a kind of retreat, raising a family. It can be understood as an ambitiously visionary (and at the same time eminently practical) attempt to recharge the ideal of punk.
After nine years, you would expect Patti Smith to have grown as an artist, and she has. The imagery of her new lyrics reveals a high order of compression and heat. And if you thought she would never be much of a singer, think again. The old force and urgency are still abundantly present, especially in “People Have the Power” and in the alchemical intensity of “Up There Down There.” But at the same time, the singing is liquid, full-bodied, musicianly. The rockers at the album’s heart, “People Have the Power,” “Up There Down There,” “Where Duty Calls” and “Looking for You,” and quieter moments like the eloquent ballad “Paths That Cross” are as vital and challenging as today’s major-label rock & roll is likely to get.
Jimmy Iovine, who coproduced with Fred Smith, is inevitably going to incur the wrath of punk diehards, who may feel that the album’s sonorous, rounded guitar sound should have had a more abrasive edge. But the majestic “People Have the Power” and “Up There Down There” have an exhilarating drive and punch. On these tunes, Fred Smith comes off like the psychic offspring of Keith Richards and Tom Verlaine. He has Richards’s implacable rhythmic concision and earthy authority, and he uses heavily amplified guitar harmonics and interference patterns as a kind of cosmic metaphor à la Verlaine. The humming harmonic-sustain guitar on “Looking for You,” the whacking momentum of “People Have the Power” and the meta-“Gimme Shelter” tropes he unleashes on “Up There Down There” create a highly charged sonic space.
“People Have the Power,” with its arcing high-frequency droning, thunderous bottom and fevered lyricism, is one of the most effective attempts at populist anthem making rock has seen. The power it packs and praises is both explicitly political and explicitly visionary, a power that pulses with the promise of imminent combustion. “Where Duty Calls” is the anthem’s flip side, reminding us how easily power can be twisted. The last song on Dream of Life, a hymn to home and family called “The Jackson Song,” is the least satisfying. Musically, it’s blandly inoffensive, something that cannot be said about the rest of this extraordinary record.
With Patti Smith’s confident singing and incandescent lyrics, Fred Smith’s persuasive riff craft and expressive sonic palette and Jimmy Iovine’s sense of definition and clarity going for it, Dream of Life couldn’t really miss. And the inspired contributions of Jay Dee Daugherty and Richard Sohl, former members of the Patti Smith Group, cannot be overlooked. The thought and care that evidently went into the creation of this album should be a lesson to certain rock icons who have been churning out dreary product on schedule, rather than taking the time to create a music, and a vision, worthy of their talents. What may be most striking about Dream of Life is that there is no product here at all, only music.