BELLA UNION 10thNovember 2019
These are great time for avant-garde spoken word albums. Just last month, Laurie Anderson released a recording of her reading the Tibetan Book Of The Dead, now Patti Smith reads on this Arthur Rimbaud project. Both have amazing voices that make whatever they do a pleasure. Patti does a mix of Rimbaud’s poetry and her own incantatory and visionary verse. That said, plenty of this album is sonic landscape gathered from field recordings in Africa and some tremendously propulsive choral song / chant. It reminds me of the repetitive chant you might hear outside the Jemaa El-Fnaa in Marrakesh but with added bass that gives it a whiplash effect. It is the work of Ethiopian Sufis – a mystical branch of Islam that worships through chanting or dancing into an ecstatic trance. Elsewhere Phillip Glass weaves his slow and drifting piano line around the proceedings, like Rimbaud’s drunken boat (Le Bateau Ivre), drawing on his love of the patterns and spirit of Sufi.
Rimbaud, as you probably know, is one of Patti Smith’s touchstones for transgressive and primal poetry, inspiring astonishing work like ‘Horses’. With Verlaine and Baudelaire, he forms the nineteenth century trio of starry dreamers with feet firmly in the feculent experience of diurnal life. Writing incredible poetry from his teens to early twenties, Rimbaud burnt as bright as Rutger Hauer’s replicant in Bladerunner. Escaping cloying provincial life at 17, Paul Verlaine took him up as a lover and they created wildly together whilst trailing between Paris and London, raving on absinthe, opium and hashish. It came to a sticky end with Verlaine shooting Rimbaud, which gave him the impetus to finally go home and write his classic collection, A Season In Hell (referred to in The Wave Picture’s excellent album, A Season In Hull, pop fans…). By 22 he had more or less abandoned poetry and took off to the Far East as a soldier, deserted, took a job as a quarryman in Cyprus, then settled as a trader in Yemen then Ethiopia. At 37 he was dead, of bone cancer. He remains a mystery; burning bright for just a few years, his Symbolist poetry is still honoured 150 years later – why did his muse abandon him so soon. Or did it? What drove him in his travels and changes? What was it like to be someone who had created such work and now did not?
Patti Smith reads atop drum patterns and her voice recalls the jungle horrors of Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, whilst blending the hallucinatory quality of Rimbaud’s visions. In words that have inspired many of rock’s visionaries (and a few casualties), Rimbaud said “the poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses.” This forges the link between the poetry here, the Sufi experience and the whirling dreams of Smith’s performances. The album genuinely creates something new by bringing together aspects of Rimbaud’s work, the environment he lived in in his latter years, the culture of the area, a modern devotee of Rimbaud and a modern admirer of the culture. It makes for a new picture, a new collage, that sets the mind reeling.
This is the second in a triptych of collaborations between Patti Smith and Soundwalk Collective and I’m really looking forward to the next.