‘You know I could never be alone’

Distorted by a middle section that chews on the blues without swallowing it, Sticky Fingers is the least of the great albums the Stones released Beggars Banquet in 1968 and Exile on Main Street in 1972, but you’d have to be a churl to end that clause at “1972.” On Exile, Mick Taylor would demonstrate his commitment to an unbidden democracy, taking the occasional lead, a diamond in a potato sack. Sticky Fingers mixes him high, and if he ever had legitimate complaints about Jagger-Richards gypping him of songwriting credits the likes of “Sway” and “Moonlight Mile” survive as proof. The languid, inexorable momentum of the former (Sisyphus pushing the boulder up hill) and the sound of a limpid snowdrop dissolving on a fresh leaf on the latter — these songs are Taylor’s masterpieces, on which Keith Richards plays like an accessory after the fact. And on “Dead Flowers” Jagger masters the art of finding Grand Guignol in sincerity, stretching vowels like he plays with the girl’s feelings. When people grumble about how mannered Bowie and Ferry are, direct them to “Dead Flowers.” Here is a song in which the performer burrows into parody such that the effort plays like the deepest commitment; think of those old cartoons where a character digs underground, pokes his head out, and finds himself in China.

Reviewing the multidisc reissue, Jack Hamilton celebrates Jagger’s achievement:

The man most responsible for this was the most caricatured, maligned, and misunderstood Rolling Stone of them all: Jagger himself. Among a certain brand of Rolling Stones fan (I am one), blasting Mick is a favorite pastime: He’s the ham, the shill, the suit. In the mythology of the Jagger/Richards dyad, Keith is the perennial protector of the band’s soul, while Mick is that soul’s salesman. (Keith, it should be noted, has promoted this reading enthusiastically over the years.)

Sticky Fingers, though, is Jagger’s finest hour, starting with his songwriting. Jagger had long been a fantastic lyricist, as the wordy dexterity of songs like “19th Nervous Breakdown” and “Sympathy for the Devil” attested, but Sticky Fingers often found him working in more patient and mature registers, full of pithy imagery and careful, casual eloquence.

Be right back — gonna listen again.

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