Review Summary: Post-rock poetry.
In my recent feature on My Bloody Valentine's reunion shows (found here), I touched upon the notion of just how much the process of canonization can change people's perceptions. Handy, then, that just two weeks later an album appears that proves my point; and one involving Kevin Shields, no less. Numerous reviews of this live album (recorded over two nights at the Royal Festival Hall, one is 2005 and one in 2006) have already appeared both in print and online, and yet I haven't seen one that has addressed the most obvious point here. It's Patti Smith. It's Kevin Shields. Isn't the very idea that these two are collaborating fundamentally weird to anybody else?
Think about it. Patti Smith, at her peak, was a firebrand, an artist who knew what point she wanted to make and who made it in no uncertain terms. She redefined gender roles in rock, she set the tone for the punk revolution that followed her almost instantly, and she announced herself to the world with the declaration that 'Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine'. At her core, she was and always has been an earthly figure, something confirmed by her excursions into beat poetry, her professed influences from Jim Morrison, her covers of songs by artists like Van Morrison, Chris Kenner, and Bruce Springsteen, and even her songs titles ("Rock'n'Roll Nigg
er", anyone?). Kevin Shields could not be more different from this. His work often takes upon a shell-like quality in the way it suggests oceans of hidden depths that one can never truly access. His music is essentially ethereal, intangible.
And yet, somewhere between Rolling Stone, Q, NME, RateYourMusic, MOJO, PitchforkMedia, Metacritic, the ever-expanding blogosphere, AlbumVote, Rocklist, The Wire, Last.fm, and this very site, across more Top 100 lists than any of us would care to count, we've become conditioned to accept that Patti Smith and Kevin Shields belong to the same club, in the same way that a collaboration between Chuck D and Bob Dylan probably wouldn't raise many eyebrows these days either. Look at the links- both have one masterpiece (Horses
, of course), both have one deeply average album that has effectively become over-rated by proxy (Easter
and Isn't Anything
), and both have remained quiet for such long periods that there will be interest in anything they do. This, though, is metadata. None of it suggests what The Coral Sea
will actually sound like, or whether it will work.
Well, fittingly for a collaboration between figures as different as these two, one of them takes the lead and dominates proceedings. And in spite of this being the first album Kevin Shields has released since Loveless
(an event that has been talked to death for the past 16 years), here it's Patti Smith. The text of the album is taken from her epic poem The Coral Sea
, which was published in 1996, and Patti performs a passionate, involved reading of it, surrounded by an ambiance reminiscent of Diamanda Galas' Plague Mass
shorn of the pyrotechnics (although her voice does eventually break into screams on disc 2). If you're looking for a reference point amidst her more famous material, then of course "Land: Horses/Land of a Thousand Dances/La Mer (De)" is the obvious suggestion. This very rarely breaks into rock'n'roll territory, though - from Patti's end this is pure poetry, pure emotion, unfiltered by musical constraints like melody and harmony. Nothing that could be considered singing appears until the album is over fourty minutes old. As such it's more believable than "Land". Not that one could accuse this of being anything else, mind; the poem, and by extension the album, is a tribute to Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer who took the iconic shot that adorns the front cover of Horses
, and who remained a good friend (and lover) to Smith until his death in 1989.
Kevin Shields' contribution to proceedings is naturally more understated, taking a supporting role for the vast majority of the album's length (he gets top billing right at the end of disc 1, though). His guitar playing, which is the only music on this album, has a film score sweep and post-rock bent to it, reminding one of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, some of Brian Eno's work, and yes, Loveless
. In fact Shields seems to move closer and closer to the sounds of Loveless
as the album progresses, in response to Smith's rising intensity. Naturally, the music and the poetry sync up brilliantly, moving as one through turbulence and unease, calm and introspection. Be very skeptical of the claims that Shields' playing was entirely improvised - I somehow doubt that these two people could have developed an understanding as telepathic as this without working together and rehearsing closely.
Ultimately this is very hard to judge as pop music. Judged as art, however, it's sensual, insidious, cathartic, and quite beautiful. A lot of people will dismiss this as pretentious (particularly considering its incredible length), but whether they have a point or not is largely irrelevant. If you fancy an excursion into something different, this will do the trick very nicely.