Patti Smith, Outside Society

Written for Wears the Trousers 09.09.11

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The past few years have consolidated Patti Smith’s position as godmother and high priestess among women musicians. Following her induction into the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame in 2007, last year saw Just Kids, her memoir of life in ’70s New York, receive a National Book Award and a future stage adaptation, and just last week she was awarded the coveted Polar Music Prize by the King of Sweden. Where this leaves her as an artist who once proudly and profanely proclaimed her position “outside of society” is anyone’s guess, but the establishment’s recent embrace of Smith appears to have been the spur for the release of this collection, a primer or sampler of her work aimed, presumably, at those discovering it for the first time.

More streamlined and concise than 2002’s sprawling and definitive retrospective Land (1975–2002), Outside Society follows a greatest hits format, drawing even-handedly from Smith’s thirty-five year career with Arista and Columbia Records. How well this works is debateable: such an approach doesn’t really fit with Smith’s wide-ranging, idiosyncratic and largely chart-unfriendly work, and consequently some of her most characteristic and perhaps obvious pieces (notably ‘Land’, from her astonishing debut Horses) are excluded in favour of more slick and radio-friendly later songs.

Despite Smith’s apparent active involvement in putting the album together, there’s a relative lack of tracks which best showcase her talent for wordcraft. In the material that remains, the still-stunning lyrics and delivery sometimes fail to make up for the music’s reliance on meat-and-potatoes rock n roll, or to disguise the fact that, after the shock of the new, Smith’s work occasionally feels uncomfortably heavy on the ’70s hippy mysticism and ’80s bombast.

It’s perhaps instructive to compare Smith’s work with that of The Raincoats, also reissued this month, and their contrasting ways of being female creative artists. Whereas The Raincoats abandoned previous musical blueprints to tentatively patch together a ‘female’ sound, Smith’s significant idols and inspirations – Rimbaud, Blake, Dylan – are all male, and this reflects clearly in the idioms in which she performs. The ease and imagination with which Smith wears this mantle, however, along with the androgyny, ambiguity and boundary pushing inherent in her work and performance, is enough to render such considerations beside the point.

None of this detracts from the glory of ‘Gloria’, an ideal opening track which perfectly demonstrates Smith’s singular iconoclasm and her adeptness at transforming the songs she covers. From the orgasmic beat poetry she scatters throughout the wholly reclaimed Van Morrison standard, to her ragged-edged and raw take on the Byrds’ ‘So You Want To Be A Rock & Roll Star’, to her slow-burn minimalist version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, her covers are sensitive deconstructions and reinterpretations rather than slavish reproductions.

Elsewhere, the anthemic ‘People Have The Power’ is saved from sounding overly browbeating by the dignity and elegance of Smith’s delivery, which softens the song’s didactic edge without diluting its strength. She treads a similar line between declamatory authority and tremulous vulnerability on ‘Because The Night’, and spins a sustained hypnotic thread through the spellbound, incantatory ‘Dancing Barefoot’. As a final standout, the Patti Smith Group’s incendiary performance of ‘Rock N Roll Nigger’ still drops the jaw, Smith binding herself in twining lines of spoken-word before tearing her way into a fiercely compelling anatomy of the artist as outcast.

Smith is undeniably a pioneer whose influence remains a permanent part of the musical landscape. Outside Society provides an efficient, if flawed, introduction to her particular brand of rock-star poetry which should encourage the first-time listener to go and seek out more.

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