Has there ever been a more dated, indulgent, pretentious and yet incontestably compelling and (it's been almost 30 years now) enduring rock & roll album than Horses? Patti Smith's debut has the sound and the spirit of a woman, no longer young (she was 29 when it broke open the New York avant-punk scene), getting off on the whole of her power, as if every word and every note had been suppressed for the whole of her life and she had finally found the secret to letting it all out.
In the decades following Horses, in and out of near-retirement, Smith has chased that power and sometimes found it. Politics, which Horses only obliquely addressed, has often gotten in the way. Like her last record, 2000's Gung Ho, her newest release, Trampin', attempts to fuse activism and free-form poetry, as if political and personal revolution were one and the same. The electric howl of opener "Jubilee" almost makes you believe it, until the perfunctory chant of "Recruit the dreams that sing to thee/Let freedom ring" makes you wonder if Howard Dean isn't her ghostwriter. But when she takes on the Iraq war in "Radio Baghdad," Smith finds the concrete images and the disturbing groove to express the absurd horror of this bloody invasion and occupation: "We are just your Arabian nightmare/We invented the zero/But we mean nothing to you." For all its excess and conceit, Smith's music can still mean in a way that rock & roll has rarely dared.