Patti Smith / Kevin Shields
The Coral Sea
Douglas Heselgrave's #3 album for 2008
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2008, Volume 15, #12
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Thu December 18, 2008, 06:30 AM CST
If it wasn’t for Lorenzo, my elderly next-door neighbor, I’d probably still be thrashing around the peripheries of The Coral Sea, Patti Smith’s latest effort. The collection serves as an epic ode to her late friend Robert Mapplethorpe, the controversial photographer who succumbed to complications from HIV in 1989.
I’d be willing to bet money that Lorenzo has never heard of Patti Smith, and if I played him one of her albums, he’d probably issue an expletive before telling me to turn down the stereo and put on some real music. Whatever the omissions in Lorenzo’s musical education may be, they’re more than overcome by his knowledge of Dante and Coleridge. On many afternoons out in the garden, he has quoted from The Inferno or Paradiso, and he can still remember — word for word — the entirety of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. While weeding out raspberry canes, side by side in the sun, it isn’t unusual for him to paraphrase the poem: "We’re all alone on a wide, wide sea, son. Get used to it. We’ve all got a damned albatross around our neck. Find yours and strangle it!"
Seemingly, there is no situation in life that Coleridge doesn’t address in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and over the years that Lorenzo and I have lived next to each other, I increasingly have found myself ruminating over lines about the disparate sea voyage that led the mariner to ruin. Like him, we’ve all made mistakes for which we’ve had to pay, but seldom have the effects of sin, loss, and bad luck been so painfully eviscerated as they are in Coleridge’s poem.
Listening to both versions of The Coral Sea that are collected on the two-disc set that bears its name, it’s impossible not to hear echoes of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’s sad journey in the troubled voyage of Smith’s Passenger M. Adorned with sonic textures from guitarist Kevin Shields, these readings — which were recorded in London in 2005 and 2006, respectively — may initially seem challenging and dense. With some persistence, however, they express and reveal some of the most memorable performance poetry this side of Jack Kerouac’s collaborations with Steve Allen.
Smith is, of course, one of the most respected and talented spoken-word artists alive today. As one of the elders of the beat poetry movement’s second wave, she has lived long enough to be recognized, celebrated, and all but canonized. She undeniably is a tremendously gifted performer. Yet, her output of late often has not been very good. For every album like Gone Again or Trampin’ — the former effort was an incendiary tribute to her late husband Fred "Sonic" Smith, while the latter outing was a touching and charming memorial to her mother — there have been many half-realized forays, such as Gung Ho or Twelve. The latter endeavor, in particular, was disappointing; a collection of cover songs, the endeavor was merely mediocre when it should have been revealing and revelatory.
Too frequently, Smith has been overburdened by her own sense of meaning, and the dancing figures of her poetry have been crushed by their own inflated sense of importance. Fortunately, The Coral Sea doesn’t suffer such a fate. When Smith is sincere — as she is here — she lets no artifice impede her access to the expression of her true emotions. Consequently, her work is titanic, fiery, and convincing. Throughout both of the hour-long performances on the endeavor, Smith rides the razor’s edge between art and sentimentality, and she comes through it ferociously clean. Although her poems are sometimes archaic, The Coral Sea is rooted firmly and relevantly in the 21st Century. Long overdue, it assures that she will be remembered for more than early beatnik-punk endeavors such as Horses and Radio Ethiopia.
Combined with her poker-faced delivery, Smith’s fearlessness often is her saving grace, and these recordings demonstrate that she is at her best in front of an audience. Lines that lay flat and lifeless on the page — The Coral Sea was issued as a book in 1996 — assume a living, breathing energy when she unleashes them on an audience. At times, while she reads about the hapless, hallucinatory journey of Passenger M., one can see the lightning as it crackles above her head and hear the wind as it ominously attempts to rip apart the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Like the mariner in Coleridge’s story or Dante in the inferno, there is the sense of Passenger M. as a tiny being in a vast, dark, and electric universe that threatens to either elevate him to an ordered paradise or hurl him into the chaotic, inner circle of Hell. Outcomes lie beyond the control of Smith’s character, and one can almost hear dice being tossed above her as she reads her work and reminds the listener that life unfurls of its own volition, well beyond the reach of self-determination.
Some of the credit for the success of these performances of The Coral Sea surely belongs to Shields whose guitar and electronic textures give life and emotion to many of Smith’s most potent phrases. There are moments when his presence isn’t heard as much as it is felt: He coaxes gentle washes of sound out of his instrument, mimicking the slow rise and fall of a summer tide. At other times, he makes his guitar wail like a siren that seems to suck the life from an unfortunate sailor who came too close to the feedback’s roar.
Shields’ interpretation of Smith’s incantations obviously affected each performance, as the decision to release two versions of their collaborative efforts attests. On the version from 2005, Shields appears tentative, so much so that it seems like his reverence for Smith gets in the way of his ability to rip the kinds of notes from his guitar that the poem requires. A year later, the duo conjured an entirely different animal. Almost from the beginning of the 2006 rendition, Shields dives headfirst into the maelstrom, creating the perfect textures and soundscapes to interact with Smith’s words. Each phrase from his guitar alludes to the changeable nature of the sea, reflecting the turbulence of the spiritual journey through which Passenger M. must pass. Whereas the early performance sounds like an elegy, the later one is an angry struggle that rides through several convincing waves of intertwined emotion and confusion to reach a catharsis.
Within The Coral Sea, all of the hyperbole and promise that critics heaped on Smith after she emerged pale and thin onto the world’s Bohemian stages are realized and surpassed. Perhaps, it is not the kind of record that anyone will choose to play frequently. It is, after all, far too focused and intense to lurk quietly in the background. It requires the utmost attention, but anyone who listens carefully will be transported to that special place where all great art touches down. On those occasions, it is worthwhile to be strapped to the mast alongside Passenger M and surrender like "a tiny dot dissolving in the vast grainy sea."
Of Further Interest...
The Coral Sea is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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