This album — like Gone Again, Patti Smith’s 1996 memorial to her dear departed — is alive with ghosts: the patient spirits bearing silent witness in “Waiting Underground”; the young soldier who is incinerated in a copter crash and propelled to eternal peace by Smith and her stampeding band in the long, loud studio improvisation “Memento Mori”; the late Allen Ginsberg, whose “Footnote to Howl” is the lyric meat of “Spell.” Even the guitars have a spectral quality — the spindly picking in “Spell,” the gauzy distortion in “Waiting Underground.” And in the bleak beauty “Last Call,” written by Smith and guitarist Oliver Ray in anguished response to the Heaven’s Gate suicides, Michael Stipe’s singing echoes Smith’s maternal psalmody like a whisper from the other side of consciousness.
But Peace and Noise also hums with the crude energy of survival, a whiplash mix of scarred joy, big anger and the heavy weight of responsibility. In “Dead City,” a blunt, metallic indictment of scorched-earth greed that sounds like “Because the Night” kicked black and blue, she spits and snarls the words as if on the verge of retching. The garage-jangle hymn “Whirl Away” is part sermon, part elegy, Smith’s voice choked with a mother’s disbelief at the cutthroat trade in precious teenage lives.
Compared with the fragile intimacy of Gone Again, Peace and Noise is stern in mood, often gruff in tone. But Smith and her band — Ray, guitarist Lenny Kaye, drummer J.D. Daugherty and bassist Tony Shanahan — burrow into the music with an earthy, focused empathy eerily close to that of Bob Dylan and the Band’s on The Basement Tapes. Smith even quotes Dylan at one point (“But nothin’ was delivered/Nothin’ good was comin'”), as she chastises herself for self-pity and inaction in the tense shuffle “Don’t Say Nothing”: “I just stood there/I couldn’t believe it/But I didn’t say nothin’.” If this album has a single moral, it is this: With so many gone and so much left to lose, the worst thing you can do is nothing.