By Mark Guarino
There is a ritual among rock critics when it comes to writing about a new album by the Rolling Stones, now four decades into their career.
The ritual consists of these two essential complaints:
They are old.
They have not made a decent album since “Some Girls” in 1976.
“A Bigger Bang,” the first Stones album in eight years released this week, no doubt fired up the same critics to roll up their sleeves and go at it again. But there are two obvious holes in their arguments.
First, lamenting that rock bands have no right to exist near retirement age misses the point entirely. Blues masters and jazz greats hit their stride in their later years and are never met with the storm of criticism that rock bands receive simply for not breaking up. Muddy Waters, the iconic Chicago bluesman that served as a template for everything the Stones did, was 68 when he died, on the heels of some of his best recordings. True, it’s embarrassing when aging rockers try to mine the gestures, fashion and language of the current youth generation, but there’s a delicate balance between cool and progressive. Roy Orbison had it. Rod Stewart does not.
Secondly, it is lazy to continually look to a band’s early catalog and insist that they keep making albums just like the old days. That would contradict what separates rock from becoming a dead genre — it insists on sounding relevant in the present day. And, like vintage duds that worn today appear more like a costume than a seamless fit, taking a time machine backwards would be fake.
For instance, “Some Girls” is one of the best rock albums of all time, a decadent mix of sex, danger and attitude. It includes a song where Mick Jagger, then 35, goes down a list of women of all races and compares their assets. Another song recounts the pleasures of violent sex. Another is a seedy stroll through Central Park, where violence and hints of hedonism hide behind every tree. If the Stones produced these songs today, their audience of mostly suburban baby boomers would be confused.
“A Bigger Bang” can’t be held up to “Some Girls” or “Exile on Main Street” or “Beggars Banquet” or any of the albums the Stones made in the prime for the simple reason that they are not those people anymore and times have changed. The White Stripes, the Strokes, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the Kills and other new generation rock bands have taken their template, put their own imprint on it, and are doing the job the Stones have long since shed.
As Bob Dylan proved with “Time Out of Mind,” Bruce Springsteen showed with “Devils & Dust” and Neil Young demonstrates with about everything he does, rock artists with history behind them can continue to strive to challenge themselves and their audiences through new statements that speak to their times or particular stage in life. Otherwise, it’s pure antiseptic fare like the Eagles or the Doors of the 21st Century.
Taken by its merits, “A Bigger Bang” is bigger (over an hour in length), but does not pack a significant bang. Of all the band’s late career albums, “Bang” is far better than “Voodoo Lounge,” a lot more raw than “Bridges to Babylon,” but doesn’t have the immediate radio hooks of “Steel Wheels.”
Its chief merit is its production. Producer Don Was strips the credit list down to just the core members and every song feels like the Stones are playing face-to-face in one room with zero gadgetry like drum loops or samples. The result is a return to their early R&B roots, where, in the interlocking guitars and crackling drums, rhythm is king.
The album opener “Rough Justice” is the best thing here, a song that feels sinister down to Ron Woods’ snaky slide fills and the way Jagger hisses, rather than sings.
From there, the Stones fall into familiar patterns although the songwriting has its inspirations. “She Saw Me Coming” hinges on a single big, bold pop hook. “Streets of Love” is a ballad that can stand along “Angie.” “Back of My Hand” is the requisite blues song, where the band effectively summons the spirit of Muddy Waters and demonstrates how throughout their career, they are the one British blues revivalists that understood the power in music’s tiniest nuances.
Another song, “Dangerous Beauty.” is prime Stones dirty work. With Keith Richard’s howling the backup lyrics from the back of the room, and the guitars in combat, the scene is set for Jagger to sound credible dipping into a sensual underworld: “in your high school photo/you look so young and naive/now I heard you got a nickname/the lady with the leash.”
“Bang” deflates most often when it runs out of lyrical ideas or hooks. Jagger still insists on continuing to rail against bad ex-girlfriends and wives and it doesn’t help when songs like “It Won’t Take Long,” where he promises to forget both, are largely forgettable. Richards is dry of memorable guitar riffs, and when he does stand out — the clanging “Rain Fall Down” — it feels cold. While it is unfair to expect the Stones to reinvent their sound, it’s unfortunate they can’t be inspired by something other than familiarity.
A beacon is “Sweet Neo Con,” their first song to be overtly political. Here the Stones sound like they are actually taunting the mainstream, maybe for the first time since being threatened with censorship when singing “Let’s Spend the Night Together” on live television in 1967. “You call yourself a Christian/I think that you’re a hypocrite/you say you are a patriot/I think that you’re a crock of (expletive),” Jagger sings.
Ultimately, the song appears to be more marketing ploy than political challenge. Since it attracted massive free press to hype the album’s release, the band has largely disowned it, dropping it off its set list for this current tour and backtracking from it in later interviews. For what was once the most dangerous band in the world, that’s a shame.