TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Patti Smith has just released her eleventh studio album. It's called "Banga." It's her first collection of original material since 2004 and it's the first album she's released since the publication of her award-winning 2010 memoir "Just Kids." Rock critic Ken Tucker says the music on "Banga" rarely looks back on Smith's life, but instead explores other people's lives and present day situations.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "APRIL FOOL")
PATTI SMITH: (Singing) Come, be my April fool. Come, you're the only one. Come, on your rusted bike. Come, we'll break all the rules.
KEN TUCKER: That's "April Fool," one of the prettiest songs on "Banga" featuring Patti Smith's former New York punk-era colleague Tom Verlaine on solo guitar. Verlaine sends out long, thin, delicate tendrils of sound as Smith's voice suffuses the melody with full-throated urgency. Although Smith has said, with typical art-democratic directness, that almost everybody in the world can sing, a few songs on "Banga" that make you aware of what a good voice she has.
Over the decades, Smith has recorded so many songs in which she speaks or declaims or howls her words, it's always something of a surprise, to me at least, when she sounds as polished she does as on this piece of modified, modern doo-wop called "This Is the Girl."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS THE GIRL")
SMITH: (Singing) This is the girl for whom all tears fall. This is the girl who was having a ball. Just a dark smear masking the eyes, spirited away, hurried in size. This is the girl who crossed the line. This is the song of the smothering fine. Twisted as laurel to crown her head, laid as a wreath on her bed. This is the girl.
TUCKER: That song, "This Is the Girl" is one that Smith says she wrote for Amy Winehouse, soon after the latter's death. This is the girl who crossed the line, Smith croons, blithely avoiding undue melodrama or feigned closeness. Smith has been known to go off on flights of fancy, and lord knows she can be long-winded, but there's an admirable flintiness about her that nearly always, as in that song, saves her from sentimentality.
She recognizes, in Winehouse, a fellow artist - pays her respects and moves on. Moves on to the glorious combination of whimsy and vehemence that she cultivates. The title song, "Banga," with its opening drums thumped by no less than Johnny Depp, achieves a trippy poetic state. And if you think I'm being disrespectful to Smith's process, let me add that she herself has said that "Banga" is, quote, "an absurd kind of song that means nothing except that we're all together."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANGA")
SMITH: (Singing) Loyalty rests in the heart of a dog that sail all your eggs on the back of a frog. You can lick it twice but it won't lick you. And salivating salvation's gone too long. So. Loyalty rests and we don't know why and the paw is pressed against the nerves of the sky. You can leave him behind but he won't leave you and the road to heaven is true, true blue.
(Singing) So banga. So. So banga. So. Loyalty lives and we don't know why...
TUCKER: Smith's right-hand man since she started making music is the guitarist, writer and cultural historian Lenny Kaye. Patti and Lenny have collaborated on this album's designated doozy, the sort of Patti Smith music that separates the true believers from the dilettantes.
"Constantine's Dream" is a 10-minutes-plus composition inspired by a 15th-century painting by Pierro della Francesca, "The Legend of the True Cross." It's a swirling mixture of Smith's prose-poem lyricism and Lenny Kaye's swooping, diving guitar figures.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONSTANTINE'S DREAM")
SMITH: (Singing) In a rat's soul I dreamed a dream of St. Francis who kneeled and prayed for the birds and the beasts and all humankind.
TUCKER: I've noticed that once a pop musician turns older than 60 - Smith is 65 - the by-now-idiotic, almost-meaningless word icon is attached to the musician in reviews like a leech - a leech that sucks out the complexity of the artist, if she or he is an interesting one, and replaces it with banal compliments.
Thus, this marvelously uneven, frequently transporting new album "Banga" has been greeted with not a few reviews padded out with meaningless phrases describing Smith as a shaman and a punk-rock goddess. This is lazy and condescending - things Patti Smith never is. Just listen to this new music.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Patti Smith's new album "Banga."