Two weeks ago, I aired a reappraisal of Dirty Work, the Rolling Stones’ most misunderstood album. Almost ten years ago I reviewed the album around which consensus has hardened, notably now that we have seen no followup. The second side has title that Poison thunk up, but otherwise the record boasts a concision I doubt we’ll see again. Admittedly the narrative sold this album: Charlie Watts, laid up by cancer possibly forever, forced Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to write and record songs by themselves at a frenzied clip. They share guitar and keyboard duties; Jagger even played bass and showed the recovered Watts the rudimentary drum parts he’d recorded on demos. Too young to give a good goddamn about the Stones’ place in history, I nevertheless get off on Jagger’s dumb Dick Cheney kiss off “Sweet Neo Con.” And “Laugh I Nearly Died” is the kind of sarcasm that uses pain for fuel.
My Stylus review of A Bigger Bang:
A Bigger Bang
History’s a bitch. Since 1974’s It’s Only Rock & Roll and probably earlier, Ye Olde Rolling Stones have existed in moral twilight. Too rich, complacent, and cynical to escape a historical nightmare from which they have never fully awakened, leaders Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have shown occasional glimmers that they’re aware of the bad faith in which they’ve trafficked for 30 years, and still they discover that their awareness isn’t enough for world-historic-moment fanboys like Greil Marcus. No, if you dance with Mr D., you best make damn sure you can pirouette with more finesse than Jagger at Madison Square Garden, and rock’s most evergreen narcissist knows no one will try. So let Keith crank out his 1679th variation of the Chuck Berry riff, let Ronnie Wood (the band’s Ringo) stay on for the ride, and let Charlie Watts—good old Charlie—glower from his drum kit, as bored by the shenanigans as the rest of us.
Only now, on the new A Bigger Bang, has Peter Pan Jagger begun to savor the paradox of one of his best lyrics, found on 1986’s Dirty Work, the last time their bad faith produced compelling music: “I look towards the future, keep on glancing back.” Lester Bangs, speaking with the trenchant irony of a spurned lover, got it right in 1976 regarding Black & Blue: “This is the first meaningless Stones album, and thank god.” A Bigger Bang is their fourth or fifth meaningless album, and their best yet. In its no-frills pleasures, A Bigger Bang recalls Some Girls and Emotional Rescue, two great meaningless albums. Imagine a record filled with the likes of “Summer Romance,” “Respectable,” and “Hand of Fate” and you get an idea of the Stones’ accomplishment: an album of choice throwaways. As an exercise in formalist pleasure, only the New Pornographers have topped the Stones’ achievement this year.
Most of A Bigger Bang was recorded by Jagger, Richard, and Watts, with Darryl Jones filling in the bass parts Richards or Jagger (!!) couldn’t play. While the record is, yes, too long, here’s the thing: I don’t know which songs I’d cut. I have the same trouble singling out any one band member for praise, so I’ll start with Jagger. He’s in great form, seeing Goyas and paranoias and playing quite credible slide guitar on “Back of My Hand,” and talking trash about reality TV on “Rain Fell Down.” “Look What the Cat Dragged In” would impress Rikki Rockett and Brett Michaels. There’s even a cogent political song called “Sweet Neo-Con,” in which Jagger calls shit on Brown & Root, gas prices, and Christian hypocrites; this is no “Undercover of the Night.” Of course it’s cogent: threaten his pocketbook or tut-tut him in the tabloids and Jagger gets mad. Self-interest as public interest—the Stones’ great gift to the world.
The realization that a band is a collaborative enterprise and not merely the first draft of a solo career empowers A Bigger Bang’s (many) good songs. On “She Saw Me Coming,” he and Richards provide the two-guitar interplay we expect from Wood and Richards (but Wood doesn’t coast: his slide solo on “Let Me Down Slow” descends the scale as swooningly as Jagger’s voice). As for Richards, we depend upon him to deepen his partner’s commitment to professionalism with a coupla croaked ballads which always become somebody’s favorites. Richards sounds great on the lachrymose “This Place is Empty” but it’s Jagger’s falsetto harmonies that provide the pathos. Who would have thought that Jagger could return the favor?
The Stones could fuck it up on the next album (Jagger can ask his homey Bob Dylan how to do it); these songs could disappear from the next tour’s setlist. Whatever. These four grizzled plutocrats have at long last bought VIP seats to their own show and had a great time dancing to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” The Stones have completed the cycle: they are now us. Fuck history: get your ya-ya’s out, you indie mopers.