When an artist releases a Best of… compellation, both fans and critics alike can’t help but roll their eyes. What’s supposed to be a collection of truly defining tracks usually ends up being a regurgitation of overplayed songs, desperate for one last go. Fortunately, 65-year-old legend Patti Smith delivers no such stopgap tricks with Outside Society. Smith supervised the song choices and included commentary in the CD booklet, allowing the compellation to be not only an album but also a conversation with the artist. Outside Society, while serving the nostalgic function of a Best of… album, also gives a new experience to old listeners. It reminds us of 18 reasons why the performance artist, who first seduced punk rockers with her poetry during the ‘70s, is still a leading force.
Outside Society begins with, “Gloria,” one of the most controversial songs ever written by a woman. The wild chant from Smith’s 1975 breakthrough album, Horses, opens with the infamous line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” It’s a shot to the soul, but rather than running for cover, one embraces it like a religious awakening. Smith positions her revelations as universal. “With respect to Jesus Christ as a great teacher and revolutionary, the opening of ‘Gloria’ was meant to serve as a declaration of existence,” she explains. Existence is a theme that infiltrates many of her songs. Perhaps it’s the reason the songs still ring true today, the question of existence being a timeless one.
Patti’s talks about love in her comments on the song, “Because The Night,” an enchanting ballad dedicated to fellow artist Fred “Sonic” Smith. “My contribution was written for my future husband,” she reveals. “Though we have performed it hundreds of times, the strong response it draws always makes it fresh and exciting to sing.”
Outside Society seems to work as a compliment to her National Book Award-winning 2010 memoir, Just Kids; the feelings and memories Smith so honestly recounted in her book were already published in her songs. The acoustic guitar-fueled “Beneath The Southern Cross” is a final farewell to the men in her life. It’s a soliloquy that channels the tragedies of the person that seeks peace. It’s difficult not to shed a tear while hearing Smith’s trembling vocals; soothing, ferocious and raw. “Rock N Roll N–er” gallops like a wild horse, riding at full speed with no shame. With her lusty roars, Smith demands outsiders to raise their fists. Smith’s provocative words still rock our world.
Smith may be an acquired taste, but it’s worth the work. Whether you’re hearing these classics for the first time or you’re a lifelong fan, Outside Society puts you under her spell.