"Gung ho!" To most folks it's a battle cry, but the moving album for which Patti Smith takes this phrase as a title revolves at its core around themes of surrender: specifically, surrendering to love between individuals, but also, more broadly, surrendering to love as the noblest of goals. "You can't prepare for the heart's invasion," she sings on "Persuasion." In that sense, Gung Ho is an album of worship of eternal devotion to our common humanity.
Both Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, the subject of the meditative, 11-minute title track, and the U.S. Declaration of Independence are important touchstones here. But more than a single overthrow of powers that be, Smith is committed to the continuation of causes. "One more revolution," she encourages us on "Gung Ho" (RealAudio excerpt) toward the album's end, then follows it with the wider context: "One more turn of the wheel" a wheel that, of course, will continue to turn after this particular spin.
Over a quarter century into her career, these are no longer novel ideas for Smith, but to lament that is like faulting Sinatra for making another album of love songs. She does touch on current events: "Glitter in Their Eyes," a blast at Madison Avenue for trying to seduce every young soul in sight, alludes to last year's World Trade Organization riots. Still, the original punk poet is, as they say, an old soul. Gung Ho is laced with backward-looking words ("gold" rather than "money"), old sounds (the Middle Easternflavored guitar and percussion on "One Voice") and old people (Libbie Custer, the general's wife, in "Libbie's Song").
The oldest soul here, though, is the narrator of "Strange Messengers" (RealAudio excerpt), Gung Ho's centerpiece and single flash of fury, as Smith sings from the first-person perspective of a slave in colonial America. By the song's end, Smith's voice has taken on the husky tone of a ghost slave erupting in enraged judgment against modern kin who suck themselves empty on a crack pipe. In the hands of many white artists, "Strange Messengers" would play as a presumptuous screed. But, in the tradition of Bob Dylan singing the liberated-slave song, "No More Auction Block," or Bruce Springsteen working from the veteran's vantage in "Born in the U.S.A.," Smith manages to pull off the passage as the anguished and angry cry of a mother from any era.
With help from producer Gil Norton (Pixies, Counting Crows), Smith and her band often polish the songs on Gung Ho to a shiny finish. Lost are the earthy atmospheres of Gone Again (1996) and Peace and Noise (1997). At times, as on "Glitter in Their Eyes," the tack makes sense, but at others it threatens to dilute the power of the lyrics. "Gone Pie" (RealAudio excerpt) sounds like disco Stones circa Emotional Rescue, and, despite Farfisa from onetime Hüsker Dü drummer Grant Hart, "Persuasion" could be baby-boomer rock a la Don Henley or Jackson Browne. Yet, even at its slickest moments, Gung Ho is worthwhile, not only for Smith's lyrics but for her soulful vocals. At 53, she sounds much like the jazz vocalists who develop and train their voices as they age.
"We will be heard!" Smith bellows in "Strange Messengers." Even as she urges each of us to speak individually, she veers toward assuming the mantle of all of us, attempting to give breath to what she sees as our idealized collective thoughts. As a new century turns, few of our best rock songwriters are taking similar turns. I'm more than happy to hear Smith take a crack at it.