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Album Review: Outside Society: Looking Back 1975-2007 by Patti Smith
Excellent, Based on 9 Critics
Rolling Stone - 100 Based on rating 5/5
This best-of compilation cleaves Patti Smith's career into two halves: nine songs from her 1970s years as a firebrand-New-York-City-poet-turned-punk-rock-high-priestess, nine from her post-1988 comeback. A perfect primer for those who've discovered her through her recent National Book Award-winning memoir, it flows better than 2002's double-disc anthology, Land. It also does a better job contextualizing her later stuff as personal and pop-culture history: The mortality meditation "Beneath the Southern Cross" and the ragged string-band cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" stand with her greatest moments.
Most people are familiar with the work of Pulitzer Prize winning author and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Patti Smith. This compilation, a greatest hits of sorts for a woman whose career cannot be measured by chart successes, offers selections from every one of her 10 albums over the past 30-plus years. Outside Society is not Smith’s first compilation.
When Just Kids, Patti Smith's brilliant memoir about her early life and relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe, won the National Book Award last year, it ignited renewed interest in the iconic NYC rocker's writing and music. The timing's right, then, for Outside Society, the first collection of songs that span her entire career. She curated the chronological track list, and chose classics (Gloria, Free Money, Rock N Roll Nigger), late-period covers (Smells Like Teen Spirit, with her improvised verse near the end) and political tunes that resonate more than ever.
Critical discussions occasioned by Patti Smith’s recent winning of the Swedish Academy’s Polar Music Prize and the National Book Award for Just Kids (a memoir of her adventures in bohemian New York with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, in which she revealed her fondest memories of youth and, along with them, a handsome, romantic prose voice) invariably focus on Smith the icon and what she embodies, scratching away at the essential connection between her poetry, her music, her political activism, and even the personal grief that motivated her return to music in 1996. It’s the type of generous reevaluation that most artists only receive on the occasion of their death. What emerges out of it is a Patti Smith who’s a disciple of Rimbaud and a friend of Allen Ginsberg, and whose participation in the relatively undignified activity of writing rock and pop songs seems to lend so much dignity to the profession that it’s almost besides the point to ask whether or not she’s any good at it.
Patti Smith won the National Book Award in the nonfiction category for Just Kids, her best-selling memoir about her years in the New York of the 1960s and '70s, and her long intimate and collaborative relationship with her best friend, the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The book was released in paperback earlier in 2011, and is currently being developed for a feature film with Smith working on the screenplay. Sony Legacy, in its turn, is focusing anew on her musical career: Outside Society is the first single-disc collection of her work to span both her Arista and Columbia years from 1975 through 2007.
While Patti Smith‘s career has already gotten a sort of retrospective treatment (2002’s double-disc collection, Land (1975-2002)), this year’s Outside Society accomplishes something totally different. While Land was sprawling, epic, able to cover so many distinct moments in the punk poet’s career, it remained a clunky listen, one where it seemed almost more logical to pick and choose through the package, coming across longtime favorites and lesser known tracks in turn. On the other hand, Outside Society is infinitely more streamlined, a fluid listen that easily commands an a-to-z listen, as well as your full attention for some serious thought.
When considered as a cultural figure, Patti Smith is as amazing as they come: an ecstatic poet who turned herself into the bolt connecting New York City's fine art and punk rock scenes in the mid-1970s, and an underground freak who not only scored an enduring pop hit ("Because the Night", co-written by Bruce Springsteen) but has kept her flag flying well into her sixties. Lou Reed is maybe the only other figure of her kind and caliber, and Smith's a better writer than Reed, at least as far as words without music go. Unlike Reed, though, Smith isn't the kind of pop musician whose work lends itself to anthologizing and cherry-picking.
A fine place to sample much of Smith’s considerable oeuvre. David Sheppard 2011 Incredible as it seems in this age of merciless repackaging, Outside Society really is only Patti Smith’s second ‘greatest hits’ collection. Culled from her Arista and Columbia albums, taking in everything from 1975’s seminal, John Cale-produced Horses to 2007’s cover-version project Twelve, it’s a remarkably consistent assemblage; Smith, for all her wide-ranging musical and literary influences, having never lost faith with the transformative, tabular rasa potential of rock’n’roll, stripped to its three-chords-and-the-truth essentials.
Has rock ever produced an artist more in the moment than Patti Smith? In her late 70s prime, she didn’t write or record songs so much as she documented performances—live-in-the-studio jams with all the grit and danger of a darkened alley or graffiti’ed subway car in pre-Guiliani New York. Spontaneity rules over all, defines all, allows seemingly endless possibilities, which makes each song sound completely different with each performance. Smith wasn’t afraid to make a big mess out of rock and roll, which meant taunting kitsch (“Rock N Roll Nigger”) and steamrollering her own and others’ songs (“Gloria,” a song Van Morrison no longer owns).