But you can easily imagine Smith swaying back and forth for three and a half minutes, plinking on a grand piano Elton John-style, her voice trembling for the punishment she’s soon to inflict with the song’s grand finale. In the liner notes of her forthcoming greatest hits compilation, the songwriter reflects that the track is still one of her favorites to sing, though. Sometimes we love what hurts us, rock supposes.
Due out Aug. 23, “Outside Society” is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee’s first single-CD collection spanning her career’s entirety, expertly remastered by engineer Greg Calbi and longtime bandmate Tony Shanahan. The title, cribbed from her own seminal 1978 song “Rock N Roll Nigger,” connects the dots of her songwriting with the very powerful, career-spanning theme of disenfranchisement, which leaked into virtually every important punk album ever recorded. Any sweaty, mohawked guitar player who’s grunted about being different has Smith to thank.
It’s a careful selection representative of Smith’s entire catalogue. Each track pulses harder (and seemingly faster) thanks to Calbi and Shanahan’s commanding engineering work, from the fearless, fist-pumping opener “Gloria,” to the dewy-eyed John Lennon-style anthem “People Have the Power.” Pop songs like the Todd Rundgren-produced “Dancing Barefoot,” and the timeless Bruce Springsteen-assisted “Because the Night” seem to glide as soulfully and skillfully as anything these collaborators ever did. Late-career brilliance like “Lo and Beholden” settles in nicely with the rest as well, a taut, sensual story of power struggle and confusion.
Smith’s been due for a best-of album for some time now, and it’s hard to imagine a better compilation than this one. Of course, any aspiring songwriter would be better-served to just purchase Smith’s 1975 debut “Horses,” which is probably the finest first offering a singer-songwriter’s ever produced. “Outside Society” though, does well to capture a once-in-a-generation lyrical talent as it’s matured into the world-weary character in the final track, the spiritual “Trampin’,” first sung by Marion Anderson. On it, Smith sounds like somebody who — after a lifetime singing for her freedom — has finally achieved it.—Matt Carney