A strange moment of the stars aligning, possibly by accident, towards the end of last week, when the remastered My Bloody Valentine reissues turned up in the Uncut office in the same post as Kevin Shields’ collaboration with Patti Smith, “The Coral Sea”. You wait x amount of years for one dreamrock charabanc to arrive, then three arrive, and so on. . .
I can’t comment on the MBV remasters yet, since my attempts to parse the nuances of the two different versions of “Loveless” took place at distortion and speed on the A1, and involved my wife and I saying, “I think that bit’s different”, and “there’s a bit more high end” as if we knew what we were talking about.
I have, though, given “The Coral Sea” a couple of listens now. It’s a 2CD set, featuring two live recordings of the same spoken-word piece plus accompaniment. The first dates from June 22, 2005, the second from September 12, 2006. Both took place at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, just down the river from here.
Forgetting the auspicious return of Shields for a moment, it strikes me immediately that this is the best record that Patti Smith has been involved in since 1996’s “Gone Again”, certainly hugely preferable to “Twelve”, last year’s creaky set of cover versions. “The Coral Sea” showcases Smith the poet, privileging Rimbaud rather than Dylan or Keith, reading her epic elegy for Robert Mapplethorpe in that stern, declamatory style that has given her best records such romantic gravity.
Of course, you may find Smith in this mode, unrelentingly, for an hour at a time, something of a stretch. And sure, there are some weaker, over-wrought passages – understandable, I guess, in such a lengthy piece. But for anyone who’s ever been seduced by the fierce, noble rhythm of her voice, “The Coral Sea” is compelling, not least because her resolve and focus gels so gracefully with Shields’ innately vague, impressionistic musical approach.
For someone who mythically spends so long finessing his music, Shields proves to be a superb improviser here, tracking the minute shifts in Smith’s tone and mood. On the first version, Smith takes the poem fairly slowly, with a mystical, incantatory roll. At first, Shields is so discreet as to be virtually elusive, adding hints of his trademark glide, even something that actively resembles the sound of a conventional guitar.
It’s beautifully subtle, slowly peaking and fading back into the background as the poem unravels. Towards the end, Smith reaches a climax, demanding “What is the point?” over and over again, and Shields responds accordingly, with great clangorous intensity.
On the second version, this point in the poem is much less pronounced. The overall mood, seemingly dictated by Smith, is more urgent and strident, with a near-constant suggestion of anger in her tone. Shields’ playing is correspondingly more propulsive, consisting chiefly of looming loops, somewhat more threatening than the transporting textures of version one.
I suspect that first version will be the one I return to most often. Sacreligious it may be to admit it, though, but I wish there were two further CDs in the set, with just Shields’ music detached from the context of Smith’s performance. Maybe those will turn up in 2025, if Shields can get the mix right. . .