Dream of Life
First Appeared at The Music Box, April 2001, Volume 8, #4
Written by Michael Karpinski
The suggestion that Patti Smith's Dream of Life might well be the best record of her career would no doubt be greeted by fans and critics alike with a wave of righteous, acid indignation. It would be deemed a blasphemy. A sacrilege. A no-laughing-matter attack on the legacy of one of the late 20th century's most respected and emulated artists. They might rightfully remind us of 1975's Horses — the molten mix of muscle and mercury that served as her raucous calling card. Or 1996's hauntingly autobiographical Gone Again. Or 1978's exacta/perfecta of Set Free and Easter — the former proof positive of Smith's live, performance-art power; the latter the studio-bound bearer of her biggest hit, Because the Night.
To be certain, Dream of Life can't compete with any of those opuses on their own terms. It lacks their electricity; it lacks their scope. But, like most of Smith's creative endeavors, it radiates an intelligence and an integrity that are beyond reproach. Granted, she isn't exactly blazing new trails here. In fact, she sounds as if she's spent the better part of the Reagan decade listening to albums by Stevie Nicks and Pretenders. And, yes, the opening riff of With Looking for You (I Was) does swerve disturbingly close to Bryan Adams/Summer of '69 territory. Throw in those Go Go's-imported choruses and that slickly synthetic, late-'80s-pervasive production approach, and one can almost be forgiven for thinking Smith guilty of giving in to the big, bad Establishment. But to dance with the devil is not to sell one's soul, and one can all but safely assume that Patti Smith would just as soon sacrifice her sons upon some Greek god's gore-galled altar as barter with an army of Armani-armored Beelzebubs (or, in this particular instance, executives from Arista Records).
Thus, while it's true that most of Smith's records tend to revel in their rough edges, Dream of Life seems designed to emphasize the beauty over the bile; soothing spiritual communion over angry agitprop. Fragile piano keeps Going Under from foundering; Paths That Cross foreshadows Gone Again's bittersweet ballads; and The Jackson Song is a delicate Celtic lullaby that floats by on an almost Enya-like melody. Elsewhere, Smith hauls out her Eartha Kitt-meets-Jim Morrison mewl for Up There Down There. And even a minor misstep like Where Duty Calls — which somewhat unsteadily weds Billy Joel's Goodnight Saigon to the Doors' The End — is effectively counterbalanced by People Have the Power — an incantatory anthem that takes up the mantle of John Lennon's Power to the People.
At the time of Dream of Life's release in 1988, it had been eight years since Patti Smith last set her spells to music. It would be another eight years (and the sudden, unexpected death of her husband and close creative collaborator, Fred "Sonic" Smith) before she would feel fit to follow it. Whether or not Dream of Life is the best record of Patti Smith's career, it is unquestionably her most accessible. Neither a calculated stab at commercial success nor a desperate attempt to maintain an artistic presence at a time when Debbie Gibson and Tiffany were topping the U.S. charts, it is a record that reminds us that, if the old volcano doesn't spew a little lava from time to time, it's liable to just dry up and die. Fortunately for her fans — those past, present, and future — the 21st century finds Patti Smith alive and well. Still thriving. Still vibrant. And, yes, still just as virile, verbose, and vexing as ever. ½
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2001 The Music Box