When mention is made of a new Rolling Stones album the mind immediately races back to their golden period, that evocatively named series of records from Beggar’s Banquet in 1968 to Exile on Main St. in 1972. Before that were the singles: “Satisfaction”, “The Last Time”, “Paint It Black” and all the rest. After that, well, that’s where the trouble starts.
How seriously you take the Stones today depends on how seriously you took them in the first place. There’s no doubt that from late ’64 to the end of ’66, their Mod period, they looked fabulous. And they got better musically. It was all jumps and leaps. Brian Jones’s disintegration was a problem but Mick Taylor filled in and all was fine. “It’s Only Rock N’ Roll (But I Like It)” was the first chink in 1974. And from then on we’re talking good tracks but no great albums. We’re talking too many bad live releases. We’re talking it takes 17 aeroplanes, 150 trucks, two million tons of lighting equipment, 10,000 staff, 987 cities, grossing eight billion dollars blah blah blah. Logistics. Profit margins. Tour grosses. And the new albums have sunk further and further back in the picture, to the point where they are little more than the name of the next world tour. How seriously is it even possible to take the Stones? Once – sure. Now – they still put on a great live show. But how much ambition do they have left? And can they ever make another decent album?
The omens are not promising and the problem is Jagger and Richards. Once upon a time they were close. They worked out of the same city, listened to the same records, went to the same parties and had the same girlfriends, Anita Pallenberg and Marianne Faithfull. Out of this cauldron, with the death of swinging London behind them and funky America before them, Mick and Keith got down to some serious songwriting. For five years they were on fire and a large chunk of the great English rock songbook was written. It came from Jagger and Richards being nose to nose, or creeping around each other, amid the drugs, wasted women and fame scattered round a room – but with one another always nearby as they fulfilled, to their pride and to their horror, every dream they ever had.
It couldn’t last. The fragmentation started. Everyone hit 30. Since then they have toured on their early catalogue. A few new songs are added each decade but most of them disappear, leaving the essential core – which is everything they did up until ’72. Even now there are miles of goodwill for them. But the myth is a monster. With Mick jetting round the world and Keith tucked up in Connecticut, where will the songs come from? And just as importantly, who is going to record them?
That’s another obstacle – the clash between Keith’s “are you sure Otis Redding did it this way?” and Mick’s “let’s get adventurous and bring in The Dust Brothers” approaches. The outcome has invariably been a safe pair of hands at the control board, such as LA journeyman Don Was, to placate them both, when what the Stones really need is a good producer. God, do they need a good producer. They need someone to limit Keith to two guitar tracks per song, someone to stare down Jagger when he does his “girl-you-put-the-scratches-on-my-back” gibberish, someone to mike Charlie Watts’s drums properly. They need someone who will look at the band and say: “You’re the Rolling Stones. You don’t have to follow anyone.”
So here it is, A Bigger Bang, their 36th studio album, and before you even put the needle in the groove three messages stick out. First, it’s their best cover in years. Second, the album goes for 64 minutes, which means that without even hearing it you know it’s 20 minutes too long. And third, Don Was is producing. So you know it’s going to be professional but uninspired, with little producer intervention. When you actually listen to the record its last 30 minutes pay testimony to all of this. A Bigger Bang virtually dissolves in on itself, ending with a Richards track of true awfulness called “Infamy” (as in “you’ve got it in for me”) that no amount of desperate Jagger background vocal sprucing can save.
Things start a lot more rosily. The opening five tracks are crisp, confident and up for a fight. Jagger especially is really trying. They’ve got songs, songs with choruses, and the production – while never in that once-a-lifetime skeleton groove of, say, “Brown Sugar” or “Honky Tonk Women” – is good, serving the songs and not being too cluttered or prissy. The drums are too loud though, and the bass without Bill Wyman there to nudge it up when the others duck out for a smoke is too low. But the songs carry it early. And when was the last time that happened on a Stones album?
A stuttering guitar-and-drums intro kicks things off, and the two radio songs, “Rough Justice” and “Streets of Love”, hit all the qualities of the band at their best. Nice energy, a riff, Jagger wailing nonsensically about his sex life, and that patented Stones sound: never too heavy; bluesy but not traditional; hooky but never pop. It’s one of rock’s totems – the joyous, natural blast of a Stones single. “Streets of Love” is a ballad done well, dripping in Jagger remorse, an outrageously over-enunciated vocal and a sterling tune. It is their best ballad since 1981’s “Waiting on a Friend”. But these first five cracking songs are the base of an album that never happens. Of the remaining 11 you could scrounge five more, if you had to, and go: “Right, there’s ten.” And you would have a reasonable Stones album. Not Sticky Fingers. But worth a listen.
Instead the album gets worse at each turn. Jagger and Richards cannot write good genre songs anymore. Keith’s bar-roomy “This Place is Empty” both says nothing and lacks a tune while containing, unintentionally, the year’s most hilarious line:
Come on in / Bare your breasts / And make me feel at home
Jagger’s “Biggest Mistake” is an unoriginal stab at pop. “Back of My Hand” is an attempt at folk-blues – something they used to be able to do effortlessly, or at the drop of a hash joint. But while it is lovely to hear the sound, it’s just too slight. What works are the rockers, and to find that they cannot move convincingly out of that mode must be frustrating. Songs six to 16 are a wayward crisscrossing of styles, trying to keep the momentum of the first 20 minutes going but never finding it. A forceful producer would have stopped them. But this is Jagger and Richards, and so there’s horse-trading to be done – “you can have that song on, but I want to have this on”. Compromise and you end up with a 64-minute album, the equivalent of a three-hour movie that demands to be cut to an hour and a half.
Lyrically not much is going on either. Jagger has never been one for the confessional. If you’re looking for what moves and shapes the mind of a 62-year-old Englishman, you won’t find it here. The best spin you can possibly put on it is to say that these songs, rich as they are in detailing the fidelities of their protagonist, offer just a glimpse, occasionally a portrait maybe, of an ageing, still-defying-the-light rock playboy. His games, his conquests and the smirk as he walks out the door; his attitudes to women and to love, formed from ’50s blues songs and his own swagger, formed somewhere in the depths of 1963 from women hurling themselves at him night and day.
In some songs this banter between Jagger as strutting cock or lovelorn travelling Lothario is interesting. More often, as in “Oh No, Not You Again” or “Look What the Cat Dragged In” – and don’t the song-titles tell you everything? – the result is unpleasant and cold. The nadir is reached on “Dangerous Beauty”, showcasing another of those predatory females Jagger pretends to hate and loves to pin:
In your high school photo / You look so young and naive
Now I heard you got a nickname / The lady with the leash
Laughable, no? And then this:
You’re a natural at working with dogs
Jagger probably thinks this is risque and tough. Really it’s him trying to whip up ancient voodoo he’s no longer got, and it comes across as nothing more than misogynistic crap, primed for an audience way below what he thinks it reaches. At times it is like eavesdropping on a woman-hater’s dream set to a soundtrack of crunching guitar riffs and thundering drums. The Stones have failed to take up a fundamental challenge: to admit they are older and to fashion their music around that fact. Bob Dylan has done it on his last two studio albums. Paul McCartney has done it on his new, moody and surprisingly good Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.
A Bigger Bang, though, is an opportunity lost. They sound energised and there is a good back-to-basics feel about a lot of it. But there is no shape. The 40-minute prism of the vinyl album suited the Stones. It forced a narrative. The open and never-ending resolve of the CD mirrors Mick and Keith now. There is no direction, no one telling them when to stop or what to keep. And until they either find this person or decide to cut an album of old or new blues tunes, they’ll never make a great album again. Yeah, we love Mick and Keith, and theirs is an awesome body of work. But they are stuck inside the cartoon they’ve become.
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