Barefoot In The Dark

Her ninth studio album, and first after leaving Arista, her home since 1975

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Now Johnny Cash has gone, it’s just her and Dylan. No one else can summon up such visionary, elemental weariness, with a voice that echoes within the deep well of shared human experience.

Trampin’ balances the concerns of the three previous albums Smith has made since her comeback: the epic outpouring of grief on Gone Again (’96), the more domestic (but no less intense) Peace And Noise (’97), and the broader, more political canvas of Gung Ho (2000). There’s grief, sure, but it’s mediated in the reflective “Mother Rose” (a lovely, languid strum graced with one of Smith’s prettiest melodies, written for Smith’s late mother), where transcendence seems altogether a more homely business. Many of the strongest songs here inhabit similar territory: “Cartwheels”, “Trespasses”, “Peaceable Kingdom”; gentle music deriving substantial gravitas from the woody, infinitely wise timbre of Smith’s voice, which just seems to get better and more supple with the years.

When Trampin’ doesn’t work, though, it plods, though never as badly as the worst bits of Gung Ho. “Ghandi” feels strained and worthy, and rhyming ‘Ghandi’ with ‘candy’ is spectacularly clunky. While it’s perhaps unfair to expect musical innovation at this stage in her career, you wish the band were able to match the panoramic scope of Smith’s words (Tom Verlaine contributions are much missed). The otherwise gripping anti-war tirade “Radio Baghdad” builds over 12 minutes, but just as Smith is at her most excoriating (just try to quell the goosebumps as she sings “They’re robbing the cradle of civilisation” over and over again at the song’s climax) the band run out of steam, with nothing to match such righteous anger but mundane, churning riffage. No wonder Smith sounds exhausted on what follows?”Trampin'” itself, an old gospel song learnt from Marian Anderson, just Smith’s voice and her daughter playing piano. It’s the perfect way to end this record, as with all her recent records, the testament of a survivor, bloody but unbowed?Smith as Mother Courage, clinging to what’s left of her family as the world ends around her. We should be grateful she still feels inspired enough to testify.

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