When you think about it, Patti Smith occupies a rather anomalous position in contemporary music. Venerated and enjoying major label backing and promotion, her actual sales have never justified the freedom she seems to enjoy to do as the pleases – unlike Dylan, Young or Springsteen. She makes the kind of records she wants, when she wants, Banga being only her 11th studio album in a 38 year recording career (well, she did have quite a long lay-off, to raise her kids), and her first in eight years, since 2004’s Trampin’. She is a cult artist in mainstream culture. It’s as though someone, somewhere, thinks it’s a good idea that she exists, and is prepared to bankroll her to do her own thing, in her own time.
Banga is a voyage of discovery, and the tone is set by opener ‘Amerigo’, a postcolonial rewrite which imagines the navigator Vespucci setting sail with a mission to baptize the heathen, but instead being utterly captivated by the New World natives’ free and easy lifestyle. Like all narratives constructed around journeys, there are many digressive highways and byways, and the capaciousness of chance encounters can betimes make the album seem a bit of a loose, baggy monster. The cast of characters further includes Nikolai Gogol (‘April Fool’), Pontius Pilate’s dog from Mikel Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Marguerita (the title track, which cheekily reworks The Stooges’ ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’), Tarkovsky (‘Tarkovsky (The Second Stop Is Jupiter)’, which borrows a Sun Ra riff), while ‘Nine’ is a birthday present for Johnny Depp and ‘Seneca’ is dedicated to her godson. The album’s elegies are Spectorish girl group pastiche ‘This Is The Girl’ for Amy Winehouse, and ‘Maria’ for French actress Maria Schneider, most famous for the use of butter with Brando in Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris, although Patti prefers to reference her role in Antonioni’s The Passenger.
Subject matter includes the Japanese tsunami (‘Fuji-San’), while ‘Constantine’s Dream’, this album’s near-obligatory epic sound stage improvisation, in the vein of Trampin’s ‘Radio Baghdad’, and which ropes in the titular Roman Emperor, Saint Francis of Assisi, Piero Della Francesca and Christopher Columbus, is a complex meditation on art and nature, culminating in an evocation of ecological disaster.
Indeed, if there is a unifying theme to the pick’n’mix hotchpotch, aside from that provided by the clean musical lines of classic guitar rock provided by long-time collaborators Lenny Kaye, Jay Dee Daugherty, Tony Shanahan and Tom Verlaine (on ‘April Fool’) it would be fears about environmental collapse, as the closing cover of Neil Young’s ‘After The Gold Rush’ evidences. It’s supposed to be a hopeful conclusion after the preceding apocalyptic vision of ‘Constantine’s Dream’, albeit one involving the abandonment of earth for ‘a new home in the sun’, which changes the ‘1970s’ lyric to ‘21st Century’.
Banga is not the best album Patti Smith has ever made, but it is a very good one (and let’s face it, it must be an unconscionable drag having everything you do compared with your game-changing debut). It can best be described as mature, yet exploratory. Most importantly, if feels like exactly the sort of album someone of Smith’s age, temperament and experience should be making at this time in her life, as she continues to tenaciously pursue her dreams, her desires, her obsessions.