Disappointing Albums, Music

51 Disappointing Albums: Patti Smith, ‘Wave’

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Each week TONY THOMPSON discusses a ‘disappointing album’: why it’s disappointing, what that means in the context of the band or musician’s career, and what that says about changing critical tastes.

One thing must be made clear,” he says, this is not a series about terrible albums. They might be disappointing, but they are records that you need to hear.

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I don’t think that Patti Smith has ever done anything seriously disappointing. Like any top shelf rock and roll artist, her restlessness and creativity have meant that some moments were more powerful than others. Fans will argue all night about her one or two possible missteps but she has never recorded a single song that I wouldn’t revisit. Okay, I might skip the Tears for Fears cover on Twelve but that’s it!

Wave appeared in 1979 on the heels of Smith’s brush with mainstream success. A song that she wrote with Bruce Springsteen, Because the Night, put her on the radio and attracted a whole bunch of new fans. The album that it was drawn from, Easter, was a commercial and critical success. So, yeah, she was poised to disappoint and Wave did the job.

It’s a little difficult to recapture what the critics found so disappointing here. Rolling Stone magazine took great exception to the first track, Frederick. The critic thought the riff resembled that of Because the Night too closely and he may have had a point. I, along with a lot of other people in the various venues where I’ve seen Smith, have been fooled when she launches into this song. It features a lovely set of lyrics but there is a blandness to the arrangement that it never seems to rise above.

Dancing Barefoot, which is the next track, is one of Smith’s greatest songs and I doubt she has played a show in the last 30 years where it didn’t feature. That said, the album version doesn’t lift the way it does live. This is just a theory but I think the key is too low on the record. She can’t seem to get comfortable and give the song the rage it needs. On several bootlegs I have heard, it’s set higher and she sounds a lot more convincing.

Most of the critics at the time agreed that her cover of So You Want To Be (a Rock ‘n’ Roll star) was the standout track on the album. She comes at it with her Grace Slick voice and knocks it out of the park.

To me, it sounds like the album of someone who is tired from too much touring, too much hype, and too many demands on her time and energy.

Patti would marry Fred(erick) Smith after this album and take a break in Michigan, raising a couple of kids and hanging out on the boat Fred kept in the driveway. The song sounds bitter and all too real here. Since the appearance of Horses, a mere three years earlier, she’d been on the roller coaster ride of rock and roll glory. The song sounds like a kiss off to the whole show. Citizen Ship has a similarly elegiac quality. “I was caught like a moth with its wings outta sync,” she writes.

Why is it disappointing?

I’ll tell you what’s not disappointing: the production by Todd Rundgren. At the time, there were complaints that it was too polished and featured too many lush keyboard sounds. I guess the critics in 1979 hadn’t yet grasped what overproduced really sounded like. The arrangements are more of an issue.

To me, it sounds like the album of someone who is tired from too much touring, too much hype, and too many demands on her time and energy. A song like Broken Flag is a case in point. The lyrics are of interest, of course, but the arrangement is just too predictable to build any tension. Seven Ways of Going is better but again the lyrics don’t seem to be well served by the arrangement. The repetition in the song screams out for a more straight ahead Pumping (My Heart)-style approach.

Why Should You Hear It?

Revenge is the best Patti Smith song you’ve never heard of and one that she most needs to revive as a live offering. It follows the slight but affecting Hymn to finish the first side off in style. It’s a break up song that is bitter without bitterness, angry without anger. When the second side opens with Citizen Ship, the album starts to sound heavy indeed. It finishes with the soundscape poem, Wave, which the Rolling Stone critic rather unkindly called a “monologue straight out of a Shirley Temple flick”. Totally unfair, and absurd. Patti was a performance poet in the first instance and excels here in creating a mood around a short narrative.

Wave is probably far less disappointing today than when it appeared in May, 1979. She was always going to have trouble following up Easter and in a way she hasn’t even tried here, except possibly on Frederick. The rest of the album is Patti listening to her muse and following it in exactly the manner she pleases. What could be more agreeable?

For the rest of this series, click here.

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