Patti Smith revisits her youth, with a few surprises in between
No-one can deny Patti Smith’s commitment to her craft and other love, Rock ‘n’ Roll. Political as she is poetical, Smith has always been a true believer, and a champion of the people, which has meant that unlike so many of her so-called punk contemporaries, Smith has never been a snob when it comes to musical expression. Therefore her decision to make an album consisting solely of songs written by other artists, ranging from Jimi Hendrix to George Harrison, probably had a few of her fans scratching their heads.
But Twelve is more than just a collection of covers. Clearly each song has been carefully selected and presented as a dedication to those who are with us, and those who aren’t.
Appropriately, the album kicks off with “Are You Experienced?” Patti and her band don’t so much as reshape it, but warp it a little, just enough to give the modern listener a sense of the original. Another one of Smith’s inspirations was Jim Morrison, whose often theatrical amalgamation of poetry and rock no doubt served as a template to a young and impressionable Patti. Her rendering of The Doors’ “Soul Kitchen” is hardly enlightening, yet one can hear in her voice an obvious devotion to the late poet’s words.
Throughout, Patti largely plays it safe, even if her choice of tunes is sometimes surprising. Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” and Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” are each pleasantly presented, though who would have thought Patti was a Paul Simon fan? Well now we know, thanks to a convincing reading of Simon’s “The Boy In The Bubble.”
Neil Young’s “Helpless” is absolutely beautiful, with Patti fleshing out every word as if it was her own. Because that’s what this record is really all about, the words. Which would explain why on Twelve she chooses to tackle Bob Dylan’s “Changing Of The Guards,” a song simply oozing with vivid, esoteric imagery, and “White Rabbit,” Grace Slick’s opiated paean to LSD.
What “Gimme Shelter” may lack in terms of menace (guitarist Lenny Kaye is no Keith Richards), Patti and fellow cohorts more than make up for in delivery. All things considered, her decision to include the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider” was a brave choice, though not so unexpected as one might think. Here, the late Greg Allman’s signature song is given a respectable and sensitive construal, so too Nirvana’s anthem to doomed youth, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Of all the interpretations on Twelve, this was the one which garnered the most attention. Although instead of replicating the somewhat violent urgency heard originally all those years ago, Patti (rather wisely) takes the song way up into the Appalachian Mountains, while adding a few lines of her own – “Children of the mills, children of the junkyards, sleepy, illiterate, fuzzy little rats” – that in way distract the listener.
Now it wouldn’t be a tribute album without a Beatles tune, but rather than opt for “Strawberry Fields,” “A Day In The Life” etc, Patti selected to sing George Harrison’s oft-ignored “Within You Without You”, proving that she was, even throughout the punk era, very much a child of the ‘60s.
Whether Smith was attempting make kind sort of political statement, as some critics have suggested, is really neither here nor there – because Twelve remains a sincere and at times touching ode to the music which has evidently touched her – whether that be Hendrix, Harrison, or Kurt Cobain.