After a pair of astonishing comeback albums that chronicled her creative resilience and emotional strength, punk poetess Patti Smith has emerged from the long, dark teatime of her soul with a new outlook and a new sonic temperament. Widely seen as the completion of the trilogy that began with her reemergence after a hiatus from 1987 to 1997, Gung Ho marks Smith's eighth career album, and it comes in the 25th year since her groundbreaking 1975 debut, Horses.
With the release of 1997's bittersweet Gone Again, Smith proved that she had fortitude in the face of tragedy and loss, as the album served as an epitaph for, among others, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith's brother Todd, and her husband, former MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith. If Gone Again was surprising for what it accomplished after an impossibly long pause, 1998's Peace and Noise was equally amazing for what it achieved after an inversely short span. Smith considered Gone Again to be a necessarily transitional work, the bridge that connected her revolutionary and influential early work to her newfound sense of renewal as a response to her personal struggles. Peace and Noise served, as the title suggested, as an homage to Smith's various influences, at the same time that it liberated them from the context of Smith's own influence.
With the aptly titled Gung Ho, Smith has completed the circuit, fulfilling the prophecy of Peace and Noise by incorporating less obvious nods to her influences and exploring the fringes of her creative endeavors. Opening with the triumphant swagger of the Bowiesque "One Voice," Smith gives notice that her period of mourning and reflection has given way to a constructive focusing of energy into a sonic attitude reminiscent of her early verve and invention and cultural awareness. There is a discernible blending of Smith's defiant debut and her eventual pop compromise with the humbling life lessons that she has absorbed since then. The almost buoyant "Persuasion" finds Smith at the top of her game, as does the moody pop-blues brilliance of "Boy Cried Wolf." The first single, "Glitter in Their Eyes," is a propulsive pop masterpiece, filled with Smith's signature socially conscious lyrics on the selling of America and shiveringly effective hooks.
Perhaps one of Gung Ho's strongest statements is the visceral "Strange Messengers," on which Smith acknowledges the atrocities visited upon African Americans through the ages and then takes a certain segment of them to task for resorting to the numbing effects of crack, thereby denying the dreams of their ancestors. It is a sobering track, made all the more powerful by Smith's evocative musical score and impassioned delivery. With her three most recent works, especially the incendiary Gung Ho, Smith has proven beyond all doubt that she is the soul-shaking high priestess of a brand of rock to which she is the only alternative.