In the eight years since Patti Smith's last studio effort of new, original material, Trampin', she's toured, assembled art installations, had her photographs collected for global exhibition, and written Just Kids, a National Book Award-winning memoir. On Banga, Smith marries together her various forms of literary expression with rock and pop in an iconic assemblage. Her collaborators are (mostly) familiar: guitarist Lenny Kaye, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, bassist Tony Shanahan, guitarist Tom Verlaine, her children Jackson and Jessi, and guitarist Jack Petruzzelli. Italian band Casa del Vento and Johnny Depp also appear. The album is saturated with poetry, sung or spoken -- sometimes both. Its themes range from a non-didactic reflection on environmental crisis, the dominion of art as man's greatest gift to the divine -- as well as its own species -- homages, elegies, and love songs, all offered with authority and tenderness. Musically, the album is absent the dynamic, free-form chaos that marks her earlier recordings, but is better for it. This is true even when the band stretches to improvise forcefully on a theme by Sun Ra in the glorious "Tarkovsky (The Second Stop Is Jupiter)." This is not to say that Banga doesn't rock; it does, all over the place: in the aforementioned cut, in the dramatic "Fuji-San," and in the blistering title track (named for a dog in Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita). But there are the pop songs, too: the hooky "April's Fool" (a song about nomadic lovers that echoes the themes in Just Kids), the sweet ballad "This Is the Girl," for Amy Winehouse, and the elegant waltz "Maria" (for Maria Schneider). "Mosaic," driven by Daugherty's mandocello riff, is a lush, sensual rocker that spiritually counters the rebellion and betrayal in the album's title cut. "Amerigo," with a lilting backdrop of strings, explores Amerigo Vespucci's vision after discovering the New World. Smith imagines that after encountering its indigenous people, his colonial ideology was turned inside-out. At over ten minutes, "Contantine's Dream," offers a feverish juxtaposition of painter Piero Della Francesca's death, his painting (the title of the cut), a dream she had of Saint Francis weeping at the current state of the environment in the 21st century, and the ecstatic vision of Columbus as he saw the New World for the first time-- on the same day De Francisca died. Smith's poetic skill -- she improvised the lyrics on the spot -- is astonishing. She pulls it all together with visionary social and spiritual context. The set closes with a lilting cover of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush," underscoring the previous tune's apocalyptic meaning albeit more gently with a children's chorus on the refrain. Banga is an event; it's not only provocative and expansive lyrically, but abundantly enjoyable musically. As an artist, Smith embodies the highest calling of her vocation: she completely absorbs everything she encounters, then gives it back to the culture in a manner that holistically edifies it.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek