Patti Smith

"Twelve" (Sony) - 1.5 stars

“To see a bunch of people sitting in a club, like getting into the poetry, or like, ‘Yeah, I dig you’—that doesn’t do anything for me anymore.” That was Patti Smith in a radio interview circa 1976. She was a woman. She was confrontational. And she was the great hope of her generation.

The tragedy is that that hope will never be realized; she’s now a well fed, moronic relic. What makes her new album of cover songs, “Twelve,” so damned upsetting is just how ignorant she’s become.

On her seminal 1975 album, “Horses,” Smith appropriated Van Morrison’s “Gloria” and soul classic “Land of a Thousand Dances” for her own revolutionary purposes. Those two songs were no more than 15 years old when she reinvented them. But now, Smith has lost all touch with the present. Like her fellow Green Party yes-men (and yes-women), she lives in a frozen world, and she’s happily ignorant of what’s around her.

Look at the tracklist. Who is she covering? Jimi Hendrix. Neil Young. The Beatles. Jefferson Airplane. The Doors. The goddamn Allman Brothers Band. These are all artists she listened to back in the day. And if she knows that music has changed, she doesn’t care.

No matter how outdated her sources, however, at least this album isn’t comprised of her own songs. Her recent offerings have been awful, bland screeds against Guantánamo Bay and the War on Terror. Instead, what we get on “Twelve” are songs that are at best irrelevant, and at worst nonsensical.

Highlights are sparse. The first minute or so of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is fine. There’s a nice little mandolin-based acoustic arrangement of the tune, and it plays upon that perfect two-note guitar twang from the core of the original.

But the cover is a whopping six-and-a-half minutes long, and includes an unintelligible interlude of her poetry: “Goat-skin drums advancing with hands outstretched, and we keep filling them with nitrous, asbestos, baby-bombs blasting blue,” she blabbers. Gee, Patti, we’re really getting into that poetry of yours. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is also the most recent song she covers here, and it’s indicative of her antiquated sensibilities—the kind of song that Reader’s Digest subscribers might think is “fresh” despite being 16 years old.

Her cover of “Gimme Shelter” might give you some goosebumps. Same with her cover of Dylan’s forgotten classic “Changing of the Guard.” But that’s just because they were good songs to begin with. Neither recording does anything but lay out an almost identical arrangement as the original, which is a testament to the quality of her session musicians.

And why is she covering “White Rabbit”? What could Patti possibly have to say about drug culture today? Maybe she heard about Ecstasy on “Dateline” the other night and thought acid culture was the exact same thing.

The most generous adjective the album deserves is “inoffensive.” There’s nothing explicitly wrong with these covers. The production is clean, there are no meandering jam sessions, and you can get through the album relatively quickly. Patti seems to be genuinely engaged in her vocals, as always. But who cares? This album is lost. Patti is lost.

“I’m waiting to do some big hall with kids screaming,” Patti said in that same 1976 interview. “To me, that’s the ultimate in rock and roll.” She could have been a new kind of woman. She could have been a new kind of artist, and she could have played a new kind of rock and roll. But now she just plays old favorites to clubs of Nader voters. The Patti Smith revolution that so many hoped for never materialized, and this album is final proof of that sad fact.

—Reviewer Abe J. Riesman can be reached at riesman@fas.harvard.edu.