Following Patti Smith’s recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a somewhat fusty institution, her album 12 is a rather obvious collection of post-induction, conservative cover versions. Museum pieces of Hendrix, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Doors all appear among a roll call of other recognizable baby boomer artists. Apart from Smith’s distinct drawl, there is nothing that differentiates these songs from the abundance of other bland cover versions. The band may be replicating the originals to perfection, but most of the songs are too well-known to be enjoyed as a by-the-numbers remake, and there is little hint of any inherent artistry capable of transcending the mundane. Smith’s backing is lacklustre and perfunctory, and mostly offers repetition of overly familiar material. Such familiarity breeds contempt, with yet another dull retread of “White Rabbit” or “Gimme Shelter.”
Considering the vitality of Smith’s previous transformations of traditional rock songs back in the 1970s (Van Morrison and The Who), this new compilation is a big disappointment. It is also an indicator of how an artist can go from a position of high regard to self-regard over a period of time. If the majority of the covers included are unable to refresh, or even add an interesting slant to the originals, the purpose of the enterprise seems superfluous. Overall, 12 exists as an empty vanity project when compared to the brilliance of her legacy.
Despite the stink of trite complacency, there are a few scant surprises. The Dylan number, “Changing of the Guards,” is fairly obscure and there are songs chosen by Tears for Fears and later-period Paul Simon. Only on Smith’s take of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” does any invention make itself apparent. Complete with a middle-eight poetry rendition, and composed as a bluegrass dueling banjo song, this version of very familiar material towers above its more routine neighbours. It is a shame none of the other 11 tracks were recorded in the same fashion.
Like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame itself, 12 can’t help but come off as self-congratulatory and maybe a little redundant. The vibrancy of music isn’t meant for the museum, or to be repeated with a lack of imagination. For an artist who used to be consequential, even when covering other people’s songs, this album is a bit of a blunder.