I was talking to a friend of mine one night a couple of years ago, after ten thousand varyingly voluntary rehearings of Some Girls had convinced us it wasn’t so bad after all, that in fact we really actually liked it: “Do you think the Stones should break up now while they’re temporarily ahead,” I asked, “or play it out to the very end?”
“Oh, no!” he fairly cackled. “l think they should stay together till they all drop dead, a little more pathetic and decrepit each time, out there grinding away at the same Chuck Berry licks when they’re 60 years old!”
Go ahead and laugh, but they’re probably going to do exactly that, and after panning just about everything they released in the ’70s I’ve had a change of heart. You tell me whether it has something to do with turning 30 and all that, but what I said to another friend the other night in a similar conversation was, “Shit, yeah, let’s all grow old with the Rolling Stories, I can think of worse things.”
Every time they released an album last decade we went through the same process: expectation, the exhilaration of hyping ourselves up, mainlining hope, then the crashing, crushing disappointment when we first heard each of the damn things, followed by the weeks or months in which we accommodated ourselves to and sooner or later usually fell in love with them. In that very process there was an existential drama being played out, for them and for us, that made them in a way far more interesting and even crucial than they’d been in their ’60s prime. And just how great were a lot of those ’60s albums anyway? Putting aside Satanic Majesties, which I always loved myself, people tend to forget that Aftermath was almost all the same song in a way, and that if you clipped off the framing anthems and the first cut on side two of each, Beggars Banquet (a bit cut and dried to my taste from the beginning) and Let It Bleed were effectively the same album, in terms cf sequencing, song styles, subject matter, etc. I think “100 Years Ago” from the dreaded Goat’s Head Soup (a severely underrated album whose love songs and general lushness made it the logical black-and-white successor to Exile) is a far more interesting tune both musically and thematically than (take your pick) “Cool, Calm, Collected,” “Who’s Been Sleeping Here?” or “Something Happened to Me Yesterday.”
As individual peaks the magnitude of, say, “Let’s Spend the Night Together” grew fewer and farther between, the peril both we and the Stones believed them to be in rendered them more the auteurs than ever. Where once they’d been so good in a field of many great groups and most of their songs were about fucking and 1001 Ways to Snub a Broad, now they clung onto the insistence that they still were The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band, and more and more of their songs were about the difficulty of remaining that while growing up/old, maybe even the pointlessness of rock ‘n’ roll itself in the 1001 new contexts of dread the ’70s offered us. So in a way, in their decline, they mattered more than ever, especially since everything else seemed to be declining with them.
Now, I’m not sure exactly when this stopped being true — whether it was Black and Blue, Some Girls or Emotional Rescue that was their first Long Awaited Major Release that was also just a piece of good old-fashioned product, but I do know that with this new album it’s come all the way home for me. I just couldn’t get that worked up in anticipation of it. Probably because of that, I found myself liking it almost iminediately. With the exception of Keith’s song, “All About You,” it has absolutely no Existential Significance, is in fact a real nice fun summer album, kinda light and fluffy and playful. The Stones don’t matter any more, at least in the way rock critics are always talking about how this or that artist “matters,” and if they feel this themselves — and I think, whenever they started to, they do now — then it’s probably that both the Stones and that portion of their audience who even -bother to think about these things are breathing one huge sigh of relief.
See, because they really have got this stuff down to a science, yet they’re still having fun with it, they haven’t gone embarrassingly cold and dead like, say, the Post-Whos Next Who. Before I ever heard it, people were talking to me about Emotional Rescue in terms of “Well, the first song’s ‘Miss You,’ they got a ‘Respectable’ right after that, there’s a ‘Beast of Burden’ in there somewhere too … ” But that’s missing the point. Which is that, like Chuck Berry, the Stones may have stopped progressing, but in a way what that means is that they can always be counted on for a good solid ride or at least a little fun. Unlike Chuck, they still write decent songs even if they’re not about anything special. Hell, the Stones were never all that progressive to begin with. And all of this is why l believe now that they still will be not only around but making good records (the stage, well … ) for plenty more years yet. They’re cruising.
The fact that they’ve become old reliables makes it easy to pick out the weak points on any new Stones album, but not that easy to find anything particularly new or significant to say about some of the best songs they’re corning up with now, things like ”Summer Romance,” “Let Me Go”, and “She’s So Cold.” It’s all stuff you’ve heard a million times before but it still feels good and that’s all there is to it. Shit, the best songs on the album are “Dance” and “Down in the Hole,” respectively a near-jam with almost no lyrics and a standard blues. Nobody looking for any kind of “relevance” is gonna settle for things like “Indian Girl’s” reference to Angola, and really tile only bit of the old gritty, “real” Stones on the album is Keith’s song, which is genuinely nasty — he even throws you a curve ball at the end (“How come I’m still in love with you?”), like Jagger’s beautiful cascade “liar liar liar”s at the end of Goat’s Head Soup’s “Winter.” Some people think there are more gay references than usual on this album, and “Where the Boys Go” is interesting (if that’s what it’s really about) in that the flipside or the really down and dirty stuff like “Cocksucker Blues,” “Memo From Turner” and “When the Whip Comes Down” in the Stones’ concept of homosexuality was this kind of smarmy leering· ,offhandedness which basically reminded you of that guy in Tropic of Cancer who said he’d given up women because it was “less annoying” to masturbate.
The glaringly weak spots are, as usual, Jagger’s attempts at (non-blues) ethnicity, and there are more of them here than ever. The Stones should give up trying to do reggae forever, though once you get used to the fact that it’s absolutely nothing, “Send It to Me” is an inoffensive little number that doesn’t hold up the flow of the side particularly (and I suppose “alien” refers to the movie, oh well). Just like the compassion in “Indian Girl” comes off fake as Mick’s accent at first, but you force yourself not to notice how fake it is and pretty soon the song sounds fine and you’re not even embarrassed by the way he sings “Mr. Gringo” or that he says it at all. As for the title cut, most say Bee Gees but I say let him have Curtis Mayfield even though he sounds sorta ridiculous. Can there be anybody in the world who actually thinks that rap about “I’ll be your knight in shining armor … on a fine Arab charger” is sexy? I mean it doesn’t matter, it’s okay that it isn’t, I’m just wondering if anybody’s fooled. And does Mick care, or is it just a goof for him too? Because if it is, then he’s healthier than we thought, healthy as he and all of them sound, and if you think the idea of the Rolling Stones being nothing more than a goof is depressing you oughta consider the relative-hideousness of possible alternative scenarios, like say Bob Dylan. Me, I’m looking forward to all the Stones· future albums for the same reason a friend of mine dug “Everything’s Turning to Gold!”: “I like it because it’s just really garbagey.” ■
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 12, 2020