Some weeks ago I saw Ani DiFranco at a smallish venue in an ugly town, and when she got to the infamous line, “the music industry mafia is pimping grrl power,” the young women in the place sent up a predictable howl. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a girl, or grrl, in contemporary America. When my parents try to connect by listening to Avril Lavigne, when Jessica Simpson (the new millennium’s Doris Day) rubs her California-perfect marriage in my face, when Courtney Love can’t stay out of the felony wing, my everyday options have to look pretty scant.
Which is exactly why Trampin’ matters. Aside from being the rawest Patti Smith record since 1996’s Gone Again, it’s also the angriest — not the anger where you kick walls and grind teeth, but the anger where you’ve lived through a lifetime of ecstasy and rage, and come out the other side smarter and harder for it. Smith was always at her best when wedding sacred visions to the devil’s music, which is as serviceable a description of Trampin’ as I can think of. Where Gone Again was her meditation on mortality, Trampin’ is her Ode to Joy, opening with a wave of fuzztone and the wild invocation, “Come on girl / Come on boy / Be a jubilee.” The deceptively-titled “Gandhi” finds its dirty groove early, and hangs on with gritty fingernails. Even the album’s most fragile cut, the lovely “Trespasses,” refuses to let its soul become sentiment: “She pinned back her hair / and shouldered with care / the burdens that were his.”
And like that exquisite line, Trampin’ might be sung in the voice of a middle-aged widow or a kid getting over a first crush, which is to say it seems to come from the whole ugly range of human experience. That’s a rare gift, and on her new record Smith shares it with all of us, not just young American women — though they, more than anyone, deserve to hear what honest, passionate music sounds like.
Patti Smith appears at the Majestic Theater (4140 Woodward Ave., Detroit) on Friday, June 25, with Back in Spades supporting. Call 313-833-9700.
E-mail Eric Waggoner at email@example.com.