CD Review of The Coral Sea by Patti Smith
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Patti Smith: The Coral Sea

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

atti Smith has always been something of an enigma, a fierce rock ‘n’ roll warrior who was nevertheless an enlightened intellectual, one whose early influences were informed by the literary work of Beat poets Allen Ginsburg and William S. Burroughs. One of punk’s original champions, in prose and performance, her early concerts were a dazzling mix of cacophony and commentary, angry squalls and a blistering wail taken in tandem with Smith’s poetry and pronouncements. Smith was initially an artist heavily influenced by Bob Dylan, so her fusion of music and poetry came as no surprise. Even while she was staking her claim as a ragtag rebel, “Babel,” her book of poetry published in the late ‘70s, and a subsequent collection called “Woolgathering,” released a decade later, established her as the most accomplished rock author since Dylan and Lennon’s early flirtations with printed prose. Add to that her brief liaison with playwright Sam Shephard (the two co-authored and co-starred in a play called “Cowboy Mouth”) and there’s further credence for her articulate endeavors.

With that said, Smith’s collaboration with My Bloody Valentine guitarist Kevin Shields comes into context. Recorded live in concert at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in June 2005 and September 2006, the double-disc The Coral Sea finds Smith reading her elegiac tribute to photographer, friend and former lover Robert Mapplethorpe to the instrumental backdrop provided by Shields’ layered, atonal guitar drones. The mood is unshakably melancholic and yet, it boasts grand designs. While Smith’s eloquent, articulate auditory is spellbinding in conveying both her grief and respect, it’s her words, filled with stark, descriptive phrasing and rich, vivid impressionism,that are especially affecting. A poem as passion play, it describes Mapplethorpe’s final voyage of abandon, a trip to see the Southern Cross and a glimpse into the heavens where Smith imagines he eventually finds himself.

Ultimately, The Coral Sea is a catharsis, for the poetess herself of course, but more than likely also for the English audience caught up in Smith’s majestic imagery. There’s optimism in the anguish, a sense that Mapplethorpe’s spirit has been freed from its mortal coil and risen to heights of greater enlightenment. Indeed, as the voyage reaches its final conclusion, Smith’s description of his final, freeing glance becomes a revelation of ultimate, unceasing joy, an ascent into heaven where all doors are open and eternal bliss is finally assured. Powerful stuff indeed.

Truth be told, even this most emphatic performance will be lost on anyone who’s inclined to limit themselves to only a casual listen. Two albums of spoken word and droning effects is a tough sell, after all. Still, those in a mood to be swayed by the wordplay will find themselves transfixed by the sense of wonder and anticipation. So too, longtime Smith aficionados may find some connection to her earliest works, specifically her album debut Horses, which found her poetic infusion running headlong into a volatile mix of attitude and amplitude. However, don’t be mistaken. Coral Sea isn’t a musical journey, even with Shields’ crested phrasing as the poem reaches its peak. Rather, it’s a requiem that swoons and sways like some ancient Greek epic, a fitting tribute to an artist and the artistry that Smith harbors within.

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