The first question about "Horses," Patti Smith's debut album, might be called the Janis question—it comes up whenever a particularly exciting performer has fashioned a distinctive style, attracted a fierce public following, and then steps into a studio for the first time. Either the style informs the record, or the process of making a record causes the performer to alter the style, the result being, more often than not, a garish parody that is forced, hysterical, or both. In that case, the record can be counted on to provide a spurious, instant satisfaction; about a month later, it drops dead. Cheap thrills.
What has happened in Patti Smith's case is something else again. She had made an authentic record that is in no way merely a transcript once-removed of her live show. The record not only captures Smith whole, it offers shadows, perspectives, and shadings that few of her fans could have caught before. (p. 97)
But if the disc captures Smith, it also exposes her. Those new shadows and perspectives that come off the record add power to her music, but they also, after a few listenings, begin to undermine its incantatory momentum. The concepts that lie behind Smith's performance—her version of rock and roll fave raves, the New York avant-garde, surrealist imagery and aesthetic strategy, the beatnik hipster pose, the dark night of the street punk soul, and so on—emerge more clearly with each playing, until they turn into shtick.
Which is to say that after a time one hears points of reference more clearly than a point of view. The brutal, physical details of the self-mutilation in Smith's most ambitious number, "Horses," take one right back to the terminal violence best represented by Bunuel and Dali's [short film] "Un Chien Andalou"—you might even think that on some level the horses of the title are the same horses that were stuffed into Dali's piano. But the sheer surrealistic classicism of Smith's violence song—after a bit it seems like a matter of artistic formality—finally makes one doubt that Smith has really thought about why Bunuel centered his film around a shot of himself holding a razor over a woman's eye and an immediately following shot of the eye sliced open; if that was a tradition Smith is trying to understand or a posture she wants to imitate.
For Smith's posture ultimately seems an end in itself. The success of the album in putting Smith across isolates what she is putting across—raising, and begging, questions of depth, substance, and the like. If the concepts, sources, and references in her lyrics and in her singing overwhelm the music, and the singing as singing, then, if her record shrinks over the next month or so, it will not be because the music has diminished in power, as one kept playing the record, as happens when a style is forced; it will be because her...
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