Patti Smith helped give birth to punk rock, inspired countless women to pick up guitars and microphones, turned her back on fame twice to raise a family, returned both times with escalated grace and wisdom, and, most of all, recorded 1975’s Horses, one of the finest albums ever. But as with Bruce Springsteen and even Bob Dylan, her music doesn’t always meet the lofty standards of her lyrics and her live performances. Like those other rock poet laureates, this fifty-seven-year-old instigator reaches for the divine, but sometimes her musicians and the melodies she creates with them prove themselves to be all too human.
Her first album for Columbia and ninth overall is perhaps her most human. Produced by Smith and her loyal band, Trampin’ opens with the natural and strikingly straightforward “Jubilee,” which calls for listeners to cast off their “Sunday shoes” and celebrate freedom and unity, despite “hawks circling the sky, scattering our glad day with death and despair.” It would be a natural successor to Smith’s “People Have the Power,” but its ordinary riffs plod without attaining the transcendence Smith describes.
Several other tracks nobly fail. “Gandhi” and “Radio Baghdad” stretch out for nine and twelve minutes, respectively, but only fleetingly match the sustained peaks of Smith’s descriptions of life-sustaining protest and senseless war. It’s the modest, more melodic songs that triumph — “Mother Rose,” with its concise Duane Eddy-esque guitar break; “My Blakean Year,” a restrained, resigned rocker; and “Peaceable Kingdom,” in which Smith offers hope for the rebuilding of a shattered post-9/ 11 world. Even more blissful is the title track: Accompanied solely by her daughter Jesse on piano, Smith covers a traditional spiritual. “Tryin’ to make heaven my home,” she repeats ever so soulfully. Here, she makes her home heaven.