“Where does it all lead? What will become of us? These were our young questions, and young answers were revealed. It leads to each other. We become ourselves.”-Patti Smith
Sometimes the best kind of success is unexpected success. I can only speculate, but I’d imagine that this is the brand of success that accidental rock-legend, warrior-poet, and champion of self confidence Patti Smith found after releasing her 1975 debut Horses. Listeners be warned, this is not a pop album to be mindlessly enjoyed, it is a collection of poetry set to rock music and, as such, needs to be engaged with to be enjoyed. Horses, much like any great work of poetry, also needs to be re-read (or in this case re-listened to) in order to uncover its layers, meanings, and beauty. This album has gone on to be supremely influential, earning Patti Smith the title of “The Godmother of Punk and is considered by some to be among the greatest albums ever released. Not bad for a debut, huh?
For anybody coming into this album for the first time, it is important to set your expectations accordingly. First and foremost, this is an album that is not about the music. Patti Smith is not here to entertain you with catchy hooks and bubbly instrumentals, in fact, she doesn’t care about you at all. This is Patti Smith’s album and Patti Smith was not a musician at her core, rather, she was a poet. Yes, she’s harnessing Morrison and Hendrix on the microphone, but she’s also harnessing Dickinson and Whitman. This album is a lyrical tour de force and, chances are, you aren’t going to get it all the first time through. For this reason, I’ve danced around this album being in a MTP for a while, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter to me if you listen to this album once and never touch it again. Horses is a piece worth really hearing, celebrating, and writing about, so quit complaining. I gave you Florida Georgia Line, so now its time to balance the scales.
One way to describe Patti Smith’s lyrics on Horses is “striking”. The very first words of the first song, a bold reinvention of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” are enough to catch most anybody off guard. Smith sings, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,” a now iconic opening line that manages to stun me no matter how many times I hear it. Lyrics like this stunning affront to religious tradition are what make Horses punk, despite not containing the loud, pounding, angry instrumentals that would define the genre. As with all things on Horses, it is about the attitude and the lyrics, not the music itself. That being said, Smith’s backing band comprised of Richard Sohl, Lenny Kaye, Ivan Kral, and Jay Dee Daugherty weren’t slouches either. The sonic landscape surrounding Smith’s vocals is always just right, swelling with the tides of her verse, but ultimately never taking center stage and distracting from the vocals. The finest moments of vocal-instrumental chemistry can be found on the album’s opener “Gloria: In Excelsis Deo” which continuously builds in volume, tension, and tempo until it all breaks into a powerful chant of “G-L-O-R-I-A!” In her vocal performance, Smith sacrifices the beauty expected of female vocalists for unorthodox and subtle tones that emphasize the words she sings. The rough, imperfections in her voice and the band around her only serve to heighten the power of the poetry. It may sound strange, but if this album was better musically it wouldn’t be nearly as great of an artistic accomplishment. Whether or not this was calculated is up for debate, but either way it works like a charm.
As the lyrics change in tone and theme, the music turns to match it. Sometimes it is to create a contrast or dissonance as can be seen in the reggae-esque upbeat “Redondo Beach” which is about a quarrel that results in a suicide. Other times it sets a scene and builds with Smith’s vocals like on the subtle, thoughtful, 9 minute long “Birdland”. As Smith’s verse falls away and her poetry becomes free form, the music around her breaks its mold and becomes free as well. Horses becomes so fascinating to listen to as it progresses because it manages to do things that you’ve likely never heard before and, more importantly, it does them well. It is for this reason that Horses stands out among the works of other poetic rockstars like Springsteen who never sacrificed amazing music or Dylan who was structured and calculated. As a work of art, Horses is rough, but it is free and emotional in ways that other artists could never dream of being. It might not catch your ears in the ways that other albums do, it might not be the most fun or easy listen, and it certainly won’t provide you with your new song of the summer, but Horses is most definitely worth listening to at least one time in your life.
Patti Smith would famously say that she believes that rock and roll belongs in the hands of the people, not the rock stars and in a time where artists are so often publicized and put up on pedestals, real works of art by reluctant, accidental stars like Patti Smith’s debut album, Horses, are certainly a refreshing change of pace.
You don’t have to enjoy it, but I hope you find some value in it.