After her National Book Award-winning memoir "Just Kids" greatly expanded her audience, Patti Smith could have done the usual aging-rock-legend safety move: record an album of standards and covers. Except she had just done that with 2007’s "Twelve." Instead, on her first album of original material in eight years, Smith goes back to her notebook and pulls out everything that’s been great about her for four decades -- an encyclopedia’s worth of literary, mythic, historical, religious and musical references; doo-wop ballads; epic guitars and guitar epics; quivering poems in headstand pose -- and some things that are not.
"Banga" (named after a dog in Bulgakov’s "The Master and Margarita" -- reference No. 1) opens with the first of two songs about Europeans’ discovery of the New World. Piano and strings drive the rhapsodic, epistolary "Amerigo." On this and other tracks, Smith sings with more depth, timbre and richness than perhaps she ever has. "April Fool," an invitation to writerly romance, may be the most buoyant pop song she’s recorded. Success has been good to Smith.
Writing and art-making are recurrent themes on "Banga." On "Constantine’s Dream," the second track about voyages to America, Smith tackles the very nature of art -- and the art of nature. Halfway through the 10-minute opus, painter Piero della Francesca shouts this "Horses"-worthy Patti war cry: "Oh lord let me die on the back of adventure/ With a brush and an eye full of light." But the song buckles under historical weight, never quite delivering on its "Land"-like promise. One of the great things about "Just Kids" and Smith in person is her mischievous sense of humor. "Banga" could stand some Puckish cameos.
This is what happens to artists who take risks; not every effort works. But by reaching back to her literary roots, Smith has reinfused her music. Produced by Smith with her longtime bandmates, including original Patti Smith Group members Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty, "Banga" is both a return to form and her best album in many years.
Three and a half stars (Out of four)
-- Evelyn McDonnell