To properly enjoy Patti Smith’s Banga (Columbia ***), her first album of new songs in eight years, and best in a good deal longer than that, it’s not compulsory to be familiar with the work of Italian Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky and late British singer Amy Winehouse. It might help, though. Banga, which came out yesterday and (naturally) is named after Pontius Pilate's dog in Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1928 novel The Master and Margerita, is inspired by source material various and sundry, with one song written about Amerigo Vespucci and another penned in honor of Johnny Depp.
All that might seem like a recipe for hopeless pretension, but the 65 year old Smith’s songs of sorrow for the departed like “This Is The Girl,” which eulogizes Winehouse and “Maria,” about Last Tango In Paris actress Maria Schneider, who died in 2011, are sweet and lovely. And the surging rockers that celebrate exploration and artistic daring, like “Mosaic” and the 10 minute epic “Constantine‘s Dream,” are carried by sturdy melodies, confident, affecting vocals, and lots of effective guitar work from longtime collaborator Lenny Kaye. The only missteps are the mnenadering spoken word poetics of "Tarkovsky" and the closing, complete-with-children's-chorus version of Neil Young’s "After The Gold Rush," which cloys.
Below, Smith talks about the album.