A well-positioned sticker on Trampin'--the fourth record this decade by the somewhat recently resuscitated "punk rock poet laureate" Patti Smith--informs us that the record "is to this decade what Horses [Smith's debut] was to the '70s: a repudiation of its time, and the promise of a way forward." The comic ridiculousness of this claim is matched only by the quote's source--one David Fricke. For those with better things to do than keep up with the painfully parasitic world of rock journalism, the acclaimed, perpetually jean-jacketed Fricke is the Senior Editor and last bastion of credibility at Rolling Stone--a dinosaur who's been writing for the magazine since well before I was born. To be fair, I haven't read the rest of Fricke's five-star review, but the remark seems so much like that of self-preservation: as if pretending that Patti Smith was again a relevant force in contemporary pop music might somehow elevate himself to some sense of relevance by proxy.
But irrelevance and quality aren't always mutually exclusive--and with her new record company's packaging choices aside--Trampin' is easily the most passionate performance Smith has mustered since the halcyon days. Again working with Patti Smith Band compatriots Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty, Trampin' is crafted in a very "post-9/11" sort of motif--with subject matter largely of political railing and revolutionary hope. Though vague politicism has long been a part of Smith's mystique, politics always felt properly subdued by the personal on her best records--a balance that has made a resounding shift with her latest. And though Smith's politics are certainly more beautifully articulated than that of nearly any other political reactionary in music today, it's still a little difficult to stomach a 57-year-old rock star mom harping on (over a largely flaccid classic rock band) about civil liberties, shock and awe, Martin Luther King, Ghandi, and, most offensively, "us" versus "them"--regardless of her conviction.
Don't get me wrong--I'm not trying to tarnish the glory of one of rock history's most singularly important icons, who today maintains a credibility that (with the arguable exception of Dylan) exceeds any of the genre's ancient torchbearers; a brilliant figure whose voice and performance defy her years. It's just impossible to argue that--pushing 60--Smith's social relevance has any relationship with the stark, androgynous Smith of her '30s. Unless, perhaps, if you're an aging rock journalist.