*** 1/2PATTI SMITH. "Dream of Life." Arista.
You were expecting "Double Fantasy '88"? In the tradition of that Lennon-Ono LP, this is the album marking Smith's return to music after a time out for marriage and motherhood. And her spouse, Fred (Sonic) Smith, is aboard as writing collaborator, guitarist and co-producer.
So after nine years, does the once-daring artist come back all mellowed and gentrified? Not really--after all, how mellow are you going to get living in Detroit with a former member of the revolutionary rock band the MC5? There are no overt odes to domesticity here. Instead it's rousing anthems and intense love songs and mystical prayers. The Celtic-flavored lullaby that closes the album is the only instance of the goo-goo stuff you might have been worried about.
But that doesn't mean that Smith will be able to slip right back into her role as priestess and poet to the post-punk generation. That community has changed over the past decade, and it remains to be seen how much loyalty she still commands there. But it might not matter, because Smith has spruced up her vocal technique as if to court a more stable constituency: the heartland rock audience. That sounds like a job for Jimmy Iovine, and sure enough, Mr. Mainstream, who produced her most commercial gesture, 1979's "Because the Night," is the LP's co-producer.
The only real problem with the approach is the band's occasional tendency to sound as if it's going through a close-order drill rather than playing freely and expressively. When that happens, either the album goes limp (as on the hookless title cut) or something comes along to rescue it: In an unusual role reversal, Smith's dazzling cosmic/apocalyptic lyric actually energizes the music on the "Gimme Shelter" rehash "Up There Down There."
But the musicians (including old Patti Smith Group hands Jay Dee Daugherty on drums and Richard Sohl on keyboards) mostly play it strong and simple, in the spirit of Smith's roots in elemental Stones/Velvet Underground rock 'n' roll. Their pounding performance on "People Have the Power" gives this visionary, naive call to social action enough urgency and lift to make you consider taking to the streets.
The group's shining moment, and the album's clear centerpiece, is "Where Duty Calls," an anatomy of the Beirut Marine barracks bombing that extends into an ambitious exploration of cultures in collision. Instruments assemble one by one, then fall into a '60s blues-rock groove that enhances the track's "Apocalypse Now" overtones. This is adventurous, real playing, pushed out of shape by the heart, not kept in line by the head.
If Smith's rounder, fuller, stronger singing sometimes makes it sound as if she's switched loyalty from Rimbaud to Grace Slick, she can still call on that old vulnerability, especially on the LP's measured ballads. For the most part, the improved technique serves her art as much as the market, which is a pretty good combination.
**** Great Balls of Fire
*** Good Vibrations ** Maybe Baby * Running on Empty