Album: Patti Smith

Trampin', Columbia
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The Independent Culture

Patti Smith has always relished the large issues, the tidal tropes that shape the human condition, and has usually responded to them in the high Romantic style befitting her instinctive bohemian spirit. Having sat out most of the 1980s and 1990s, she spent much of her late 1990s comeback mining her responses to the death of her husband, the former MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, in albums such as Gone Again and Peace and Noise, but seemed to have lost impetus by 2000's Gung Ho.

The Iraq War appears to have restored some of that sense of purpose to her work. Trampin' is an album that both criticises America's military involvement in the Middle East, and seeks to reaffirm the oft-derided values of the 1960s counterculture. The integrity of her intentions is never in doubt, but the efficacy of her response is another matter. On the most basic protest-song level, the 12-minute "Radio Baghdad" has a pleasing intellectual swagger, with Smith citing the development of science, maths and civilisation in the Tigris/Euphrates basin, and questioning America's right to even hold an opinion on a region it understands so poorly.

The point is well made, but undercut by her repetitive, extemporised approach, and the uninspiring longeurs it encourages in her band. The track is done and dusted long before it actually draws to a close - as too is the nine-minute "Gandhi", a call for the resumption of non-violent protest. More effectively focused is "Peaceable Kingdom", in which Smith's hope that "maybe one day we'll be strong enough to build the peaceable kingdom back up again" is set to a concise arrangement of reflective electric piano and guitar.

The shamanic nature of pieces like "Jubilee" and "Stride of the Mind" reaches its apogee in "My Blakean Year", where ponderously chugging violin and guitar underscore her questioning of the view that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. "One road," she notes, "is paved in gold; one road is just a road." The theme is developed in "Cash", in which the desensitising effects of materialist indulgence are rather too aptly evoked by the plodding, enervated manner of the backing.

This disparity between attitude and execution is the central weakness of Trampin'. In piece after piece, Smith urges her audience away from dissipation, deceit and violence, towards a new age of spiritual and ethical purity; but in all but a few cases, the music fails to embody that desire with any real conviction or inventiveness. Only "Peaceable Kingdom", the country-style waltz "Trespasses" and the title-track have the shape and concision commensurate with a genuine sense of purpose; the rest is just good intentions set to aimless jams.

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