Patti Smith possesses some qualities that are fast disappearing from most American rock & roll: passion, flamboyance, a sense of the epic, a belief in the music itself as a revolutionary force. As a moony high priestess of art, forever building altars to herself, she’s a bore — as pretentious as a college sophomore who’s just discovered decadence, as ingenuously egotistic as a spoiled five-year-old. But as a demagogic purveyor of barbed, gutbucket rock & roll, she ranks above most performers’ today. At her best, she makes rock seem dangerous again.
Easter, released in 1978, sounded like an artistic as well as commercial breakthrough for Smith. Though it had its share of rambling excess and the pseudomythic baggage that’s always marred her work, the music was so punchy and muscular that you could ignore those flaws, because the tunes’ tight pop structures gave the singer’s declamatory martial fantasies more focus and bite than they’d ever had. If Easter was Smith’s least idiosyncratic LP, it was also — partly for that same reason — her most convincing.
Clearly, Easter‘s success put a kind of pressure on Smith she hadn’t felt before, and Wave is a very self-conscious follow-up. Success has encouraged all of this artist’s worst vices — her self-indulgence and overweening preciousness — and the new record tries to have it both ways: to retain her big, newfound audience, while allowing her taste for arch, artsy self-glorification and highfalutin poetic nonsense full rein.
Produced by Todd Rundgren, Wave is a well-crafted, carefully calculated album, but its songs aren’t as good or as powerful as Easter‘s, and the range of styles is so uncertain and contradictory that each cancels out the other. There’s no single track that sets a tone for the LP, and the best numbers fail to kick in the way they should. Even the raveups that are Patti Smith’s specialty don’t work here, because they’re so obviously designed to conceal the weakness of the material. In “Citizen Ship,” for instance, Smith tries to manufacture an impressionistic epic about expatriation and the trials of refugees, but she isn’t really in control of the idea. By the end, she’s reduced to ranting, “Give me your tired, your poor,” as the band shouts out place names behind her, simply to provide a bloated apocalyptic finish that comes out of nowhere.
The pop dynamics that held Easter together are transformed on Wave into a manipulative commercial tease that’s used to draw you in on the first three songs and then abruptly abandoned in favor of a sanitized, prettified (i.e., Rundgrenized) version of Radio Ethiopia‘s numbingly arty formlessness. “Frederick,” the opening cut, is a reprise of Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith’s “Because the Night,” combined with the former’s “Prove It All Night.” Though not unpleasant, the new number, with its ingratiating “Hello It’s Me” piano intro and bouncy, rippling melody, sorely misses its predecessor’s epiphanic power, and the lyrics amount to no more than schoolgirl hyperbole: “But tonight on the wings of the dove/Up above/To the land of love.” Basically, “Frederick” is a glossy little nothing of a song — just stylish and innocuous enough to be recorded by Janis Ian — and so insubstantial that it seems to end almost as soon as it’s begun.
Technically, Smith’s singing is fine, but it lacks all tension and commitment. She’s so pleased with herself that her voice can’t convey any real urgency. Even “Dancing Barefoot,” a swirling, seductive love song marred only by its gimmicky love-as-addiction metaphor and heroin/heroine wordplay, seems inconsequential. It’s been too self-servingly designed as an elegant star turn to move you in any of the right ways.
Only the rousing cover version of the Byrds’ “So You Want to Be (a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star)” comes close to capturing Patti Smith’s force. Naturally, she misses the tune’s irony — instead, she’s high on exactly the kind of vainglory the lyrics are meant to undercut — but even as she’s scrambling the Byrds’ original meaning, she finds her own in the feverish rush of the performance itself. “So You Want to Be (a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star)” is one of Wave‘s few captivating moments.
Then, just when you’re primed for more rock & roll, the record begins to come apart at the seams. There’s the ludicrously overwrought melodrama of “Revenge,” followed by the vague and pointless art-rock doodling that takes up most of side two. Smith tries to utilize some of the mythic/religious imagery that was so central to Easter, but, though it works intermittently (as in “Broken Flag,” a somber and evocative “Onward, Christian Soldiers”-type march), it’s all done piecemeal, tossed in like a nervous tic to puff up the songs with importance.
The title track, a recitation about Smith and her father, is misconceived in a particularly revealing way. You can’t argue with the sentiments — the mixed feelings of nostalgia and distance about a parent, the sense of never having said all that one meant to, are probably common to most of us — but the way they’ve been handled seems all wrong. “Wave” is a tearjerking monologue straight out of a Shirley Temple movie, though the moody piano fills and reverential choir on the soundtrack would probably be more at home in a dream sequence from a bad experimental film. Patti Smith has one or two affecting moments (the tone of her voice when she says, “Somethin’s always happening to me”), but most of the time, she overplays the soulful-waif role to the point of parody, keeping the emphasis entirely on her sensitivity, her suffering. Here, as elsewhere, the material doesn’t seem to have been thought through. It’s as if everyone in the studio admired Smith so much that no one ever dared to ask her what the hell the song was supposed to be about.
Though a long way from being a total disaster, Wave is too confused and hermetically smug to be much more than an interesting failure. Simultaneously overworked and unfelt, it’s a transitional album in the most transient sense of the word.