Patti Smith has never stopped being reckless. At a time when most songwriters can’t see beyond their neighborhoods or above their belts, the fifty-three-year-old Smith still insists that rock is a gateway to revelation. She doesn’t flinch from excess or outsize emotions; she makes known her desire, her fury, her exaltation, her grief. Drawn to extremes, she can be inspired or klutzy, and she’s rarely anything in between. For most of Gung Ho, Smith is simply inspired.
Smith contemplated mortality and loss on her last two albums, Gone Again and Peace and Noise, drawing inward after the death in 1994 of her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5. Now, with Gung Ho, she’s back to life, taking on the whole world. She belts manifestoes, plunges headlong into love, offers benedictions and hurls herself into history and myth. She casts herself as Salome in the slinky “Lo and Beholden,” as the accusatory ghosts of African-American slaves in the tolling “Strange Messengers,” as General Custer’s lonesome wife in the neo-Appalachian “Libbie’s Song.”
She does all of it with a revitalized band. The album’s producer, Gil Norton (whose crescendos for the Pixies were an alternative-rock cornerstone), has subtly filled out the sound of the Patti Smith Group without losing its handmade, jamming essence. Guitar tones resonate through the mix, and new lines snake through what used to be hollow space. Atmospheric effects steal into the background, like the helicopters and rhythmic breathing in “Gung Ho” itself, a meditation on Ho Chi Minh.
“New Party” sounds like one of Smith’s neo-Beat improvisations — “Why don’t you, unhh, fertilize my lawn with what’s running from your mouth?” — as she fools with her voice: growling, stuttering, stretching syllables or talking tough like Lou Reed. But the jam has been embellished; the band moves from dissonant “Dancing Days”-style Zeppelin riffing to anthemic rock to scrubbing funk, while overdubbed Pattis talk back and urge her on.
There are echoes of Smith’s contemporaries from the 1970s punk-rock nexus at CBGB. The spy-movie wah-wah and reverb of “Gone Pie” lead to a buoyant chorus fit for Blondie, while “Persuasion” has a coiling guitar line fit for Television. (Completing the connection, Television’s Tom Verlaine sits in on “Glitter in Their Eyes.”) Smith can seem like a die-hard hippie, thinking about Vietnam and proselytizing for universal love and united action in songs like “One Voice” and “Upright Come.” But she’s not looking backward. Over four jabbing chords, “Glitter in Their Eyes” squares off against free-market rapacity and the lures of materialism — the “dust of diamonds making you sneeze.” Smith isn’t withdrawing into a utopian haze. She’s ready to fight for her right to a higher purpose.