It’s an interesting choice for Patti Smith to release an album of covers. Smith made her name — and her place in the annals of punk music — as a songwriter. Drawing frequent comparisons to Bob Dylan, Smith’s powerful lyrics brought poetry to the punk movement as they screamed out of the dirty streets, basements and bars of New York City in the late ’70s and into the ’80s. She was among the first women to challenge the traditionally male-dominated singer/songwriter niche, and she’s certainly a far cry from Woody Guthrie.
Taken in this context, it would be exciting to hear her reinterpretations of the classic songs she’s decided to cover. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, there isn’t a whole lot of reinterpreting being done on Smith’s latest release, “Twelve.” Songs like “Within You Without You” and “Gimme Shelter” remain doggedly fixed to the same concepts that were prominent in the original recordings. Smith’s smooth and powerful voice certainly brings a different texture to the screams of “Rape” and “Murder” than the misogynist Jagger’s, but she fails to re-examine the instrumentation or the melody. Instead, she makes the song her own less tangibly, by genuinely breathing and loving the words out.
The same is true for much of the album; Smith’s song selection runs the gambit from Jefferson Airplane to Nirvana to Neil Young and the Beatles, and she does an admirable job wherever she goes. Bob Dylan’s “Changing of the Guard” is a notable piece, feeling earthy and truthful. A simple guitar and drum backup give the perfect set of smooth and understated chords for Smith’s pure voice to emerge from, both powerful and beautiful. Neil Young’s “Helpless” feels similar — Smith remains close to the spirit of the original, but her song comes across as heartfelt just the same. Smith doesn’t seem to work particularly hard at making these songs her own, but she manages to do so just the same.
The most notable of Smith’s divergences from her text is “Smells like Teen Spirit,” a truly passionate and new reading of the grunge classic. Banjo and guitar lurch forward in a dark and rhythmic swing, pushing the song forward with determination and grit. Lines like “A mulatto, an Albino/ A mosquito, my Libido” make perfect sense coming out of Smith. The song climaxes with a furious poem read by Smith against an equally enraged guitar pierced by a fire-breathing and dissonant violin. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a moving and powerful piece, and far and away the best of the album. Here, Smith is relevant and mesmerizing.
No moment on “Twelve” feels forced, unnatural or fake, but many of them still leave the listener wanting more songs as visionary as “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Every song lives and breathes, no doubt, but not all demand to be listened to in the same way. “Twelve” is a powerful album, but falls just short of being fantastic.