Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Horses - Patti Smith

"Jesus died for someone's sins - but not mine."

The opening line of Gloria, the opening song on Horses, Patti Smith's debut album, released in 1975. Arguably the greatest debut album ever. It sounded like nothing released before, and very little since. It took complex, erudite poetry infused with startling imagery, and combined it with a range of musical styles including rock, rock and roll and reggae. It predated and informed punk, and confirmed that women could compete with men in the rock arena without compromise.

Horses is a difficult album, but sounds to these ears as fresh as it did on first hearing, thirty years ago. Each time I listen (and you do have to listen - this is not background music) new things surface and entrance. The subject matter is stark, but not depressing - there is a confidence and defiance that suggests redemption and self-belief despite the violence and death.

Gloria's opening line is a statement of intent, a manifesto even, which leads into the tale of a lesbian love affair infused with the spirit of Van Morrison's original, which is transcended and pummelled into submission by the band, before slowing into a defiant restatement of the opening line.

Land (Horses/Land of a Thousand Dances/La Mer(de)) is the highpoint of an album full of highpoints, and the possibly the best combination of poetry, imagery and rock ever. As with Gloria, it takes a 60's classic, and subverts it into something huge and compelling. Again, the subject matter is dark - centering on a homosexual rape and subsequent suicide but it makes that response feel almost positive - something other than 'surrender' - before referencing Gloria as the cycle comes to it's conclusion. Powerful, compelling stuff. Patti playing in the sea of possibility.

But to focus on these two (admittedly standout) tracks is to undersell the rest of the album - the stream of consciousness that suffuses Birdland, the lilting reggae of Redondo Beach and the closing lament that is Elegie.

Horses will not be for everyone - it took me a few years to really 'get' the album - but persevere and you will find the beauty that lurks within.

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