Poet-turned-rock-star Patti Smith proves on her latest album that, even as many of her peers have melllowed with age, she is still unafraid to make the Bold Rock Statement. But unlike some of today's younger musicians who have followed in her footsteps, Smith is never about edginess for its own sake. Genuine emotions and thoughtfulness are the backbone of the eleven songs which comprise Trampin'.
After a quartet of fine albums in the 1970s, Smith took a 17-year hiatus from recording. Trampin' marks the fourth since returning to the new record racks in 1996, and it's her most passionate and coherent release of this new era.
Smith's key theme is her prismatic look at motherhood, from the personal to the panoramic. She writes both about the loss of her own mother, who passed away two years ago, on the track "Mother Rose," as well as "Cartwheels," a song written for her own daughter Jesse, and the challenges faced by a young woman growing up.
On the other end of the spectrum, "Radio Baghdad" is an epic 12-minute poem of a mother speaking to her child during the bombing of Baghdad set to some muscular riffing from her longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye in classic Smith style.
Forceful rock numbers and equally strong political statements propel Trampin' along at its key junctures. The album begins with "Jubilee," inspired by the notion that, according to the old Testament, all slaves are set free every fiftieth Pentecost. Smith and co-writer Lenny Kaye weave a anthem of optimism amidst a backdrop of today's ominous world. "We will never fade away/Doves shall multiply" the lyrics proclaim, followed by the lines, "Yet I see hawks circling the sky/Scattering our glad day." Smith makes the connection to today's politics explicit during one of her trademark spoken bridges following the guitar solo, "Our vital realms are being squeezed/Curtailing civil liberties," she intones, "Recruit the dreams that sing to thee/Let freedom ring."
Clearly, Smith is very concerned or alarmed about the state of America and the world, and this energy has invigorated the songwriting of herself and her bandmates. The war in Iraq looms darkly over a number of the album's songs, like "Peaceable Kingdom," "Gandhi" and especially "Radio Baghdad."
But Trampin' closes with the delicate spirituality of its traditional title cut. With daughter Jesse making her recording debut playing the piano accompaniment, Smith emotionally sings its refrain: "I'm trampin', trampin', trying to make heaven my home." The connection between "home" as family, "home" as world, and the need to strive for redemption of both neatly ties together the themes on the record.
Trampin' is not only among the best albums Smith has released, it's also a vital document of our nation in year 2004. And the New York icon proves that, as her debut album approaches its 30th birthday next year, she can still rock with the visceral punch which forever altered the way we think of women in rock 'n' roll.