RECENTLY ON AN episode of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart asked R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe who he'd endorsed in the presidential primaries. The singer answered Bill Bradley, citing the candidate's consideration of a Patti Smith tune for his campaign song. (Though Stipe didn't clarify which one, 1988's "People Have the Power," with its chorus exhorting the common man to "wrestle the world from fools," seems the obvious choice.) But listening to Gung Ho (Arista), Smith's eighth and newest album, and easily her most consistent since the first phase of her career closed with 1979's Wave, it's apparent she could be making a greater contribution to the race. Patti Smith should be running for president.
Moore Theater, Thursday, April 20
Opening with "One Voice," an incantation reminiscent of ritualistic classics like "Ghost Dance" and "Dancing Barefoot," the disc immediately reminds us of the singer's engrossing oratory style; you can feel the spirit moving through her as she opens up on the lines "heaven abounds/let love resound." Time has only enriched her gifts. Although Gung Ho rekindles the fiery delivery of "Because the Night" with ringing anthems like "Persuasion" (underscored by guest Grant Hart's keyboard work), Smith displays great restraint, too, sanding off her trademark vocal cracks of yore to imbue "China Bird" with a quiet, steady warmth.
Professional politicians may seduce us temporarily with charm-school charisma, but they're betrayed by their speeches, meticulously worded yet lacking in clarity. In contrast, Smith's a funny, self-deprecating public speaker. And despite sometimes bewildering imagery, lyrically she has shot from the hip since her 1974 debut single, "Piss Factory." Her use of language remains as succinct and honest as ever, best exemplified on the wistful new "Gone Pie."
Smith cohort Robert Mapplethorpe (he shot the jacket of 1975's landmark Horses) may have been targeted by the radical right as a threat to our country's moral fiber, but the singer herself has long been a vocal patriot; "In heart, I am an American artist," she declared on "Babelogue," the intro to Easter's "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger." On Gung Ho, the history buff quotes the Declaration of Independence ("New Party"), and recounts life through the eyes of General Custer's widow on the Appalachian-flavored "Libbie's Song." She's got minority appeal, too, serving up a moving eight-minute meditation on slavery ("Strange Messengers"), and concluding with a biographical epic about Ho Chi Minh.
If you're worried this poet knows nothing of hardball politics, bear two points in mind. First, she's remained on the roster of Arista Records—a label better known for peddling such notables as Whitney Houston and Barry Manilow—for a quarter-century, despite eight- and nine-year sabbaticals between albums. Plus it's a testimony to her diplomatic abilities that guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty have stuck with her throughout.
Even at age 53, this mother of two doesn't want for youth appeal; her current boyfriend, guitarist Oliver Ray, is 26 years her junior. Producer Gil Norton (Pixies, Catherine Wheel) ensures that Gung Ho sounds tight and polished, yet never too slick. When the singer warns the "kids" against prostrating before the almighty dollar on "Glitter in Their Eyes" (featuring a solo by Television's Tom Verlaine), she comes across as a compelling veteran, not some out-of-touch old timer. Even what may seem to some the album's biggest misstep, "New Party," smartly harnesses a motivational message ("the world's troubles are a global concern") to MTV-friendly anger-management rock ࠬa Rage Against the Machine.
According to Smith, "'Gung ho' is an old Chinese character meaning 'working together.'" Time and again the singer returns to this theme; "The distant thunder/Is nothing but hearts beating as one," she cries on "Upright Come." As the division between income brackets grows wider every day and the middle class disappears, Smith is blessed with the rare combination of characteristics required to reunite our nation: intellect, compassion, and wide-reaching appeal (remember, she's pals with Bruce Springsteen). Please, Patti, throw your hat in the ring.