My first Pretentious Hipster Album of the Month Review will be on an album whose sound shoots quite radically off the mainstream (or at least the contemporary mainstream). However, Patti Smith is considered a popular artist…or at least she was at some point before computers were invented. IMO, I’d call this album not mainstream, exactly, but a few notches east or west of it.
**DISCLAIMER** Reviews are subjective and are a reflection of my personal opinion only. Agree or disagree. Love or hate. These are only my thoughts.
Brief artist backgroundPatti Smith was both a musician and a poet. She was born and raised in a rural and religious setting, then moved to NYC to pursue painting and performance. Her heyday was in the ’70s, but she’s still popping albums in the 21st century – albeit lesser known, though. She formed the Patti Smith group, mixed with the intellectual lot of the day, such as Beat novelist William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch). She’s most well-known for her contribution to the evolution of punk rock, as well as her unique brand of poetry/spoken word + music.
If you want to know more about Patti Smith’s work I recommend Patti Smith Complete: 1975-2006, where I got most of my facts for this review.
I will henceforth call the “songs” on this album “pieces.” I think the latter is a more appropriate term for these poem-song half-breeds. Each of Patti Smith’s pieces is a combination of spoken word, sung melody, and supporting instrumentation. The instrumentation is substantially complex; however, it’s obvious those little background guitar licks, adorable as they are, play only a supporting role to the smashing vocals and bold poetry.
The album begins with the daring and seductive growl “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” and we hit one of Patti Smith’s beloved classics – “Gloria (in excelsis deo).” The song pulls lyric from “Oath” (a poem) and “Gloria” (Van Morrison song). It’s radical. It’s loud. It’s anthemic, and it’ll probably be most people’s favourite track.
The other highlight on Side 1 must be “Birdland.” This is a sprawling 9:16-epic inspired by Peter Reich’s Book of Dreams. A trippy scene, in which a boy sees his deceased father piloting a spaceship. This is perhaps the most emotionally-intense track of the album. It slowly builds from wavering piano chords and spoken word to what can only be described as vocal exorcism. At the climax, it’s as if the musicians are all demon-possessed. The repeating line “we are not human” fits very well.
Side 2’s star track is undoubtedly “Land,” another long anthem. It’s split into three parts: “Horses,” “Land of a Thousand Dances,” and “La Mer (de),” and was inspired by a William S. Burroughs novel. The lyrics here jump around a bit, and it’s a little more difficult to follow. There are disjunct references to horses, dance moves (especially the watusi, for some reason), possibilities and seas of possibilities, and of course a suicide scene.
I waver between “Gloria” and “Birdland,” depending on my energy level.
Story factor (how well an album flows)
3/5. The flow was well-balanced. Long, serious, intense songs gave way to lighter, shorter, more upbeat songs, then back to long and serious. The tracks “Redondo Beach” and “Kimberly” are arguably a little lighter (at least in sound, not subject matter). It’s nice that the album ends with “Elegie,” a simple, short, sigh-of-relief track.
There was some connectivity. The lines “Saw this sweet young thing/Humping on the parking meter/Leaning on the parking meter” from “Gloria” return at the end of “Land.” I’ve yet to figure out why she chose these (seemingly crude) lines in particular but who am I to judge.
4.5/5. Attitude on this album is pretty substantial. Patti’s got swag.
5/5. According to Wikipedia this is one of the greatest albums of all time. It’s on the Rolling Stones list and was super-influential to the punk scene or something. So there you go. *Applause*
In all seriousness though, and cynicism aside, it’s a great work and it’s well worth a listen to. You may not like it, per se, but it’s definitely an interesting piece of art.
Writers, poets, and literary connoisseurs who enjoy good old-fashioned rock’n’roll. If you like wearing leather jackets and sipping wine, listen to Patti Smith. If you like wearing leather jackets but would rather chug beer, Joan Jett’s more your gal.
Worth the hype?
Horses is a legendary album and for good reason. It’s ranked as one of my top favourite albums. Will I listen to it while I vacuum floors and study for tests? Maybe not. It’s a little too intense for regular listening.
Besides, it has its flaws. I’m not sure if I like Patti Smith’s use of repetition of certain words and phrases; she does it quite often, as if emphasizing almost everything. Too much emphasis is not emphasis at all – why the need to repeat stuff so much?
At the end of the day, though, it’s a cool album that proves words and music are the couple to ship.
Final rating: 9/10 Bravo!!
I admit it. I’m succumbing to hipsterism for this one.