I’m a huge fan of the Rolling Stones, and they’ve been a favorite since I discovered “Sympathy for the Devil” in high school – regardless of what happened to them from 1973 onwards, they’re one of the greatest bands the world has ever seen. That being said, I’m not a huge fan of this album, and I find it to be easily the weakest album among their “big four” albums released between 1968 through 1972 (to say nothing of 1966’s Aftermath). Every time I see someone place this as the best Rolling Stones album, I think seriously? This one? Better than Beggars Banquet? Fuck no: if this one is song-for-song, more “consistent”, then fine, but that not only did that one’s big two songs – “Sympathy” and “Street Fighting Man” – smoke this album’s equivalents out the water (“Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses”), that album also provided a snapshot of dirty, disillusioned America of the late-60s; what results is more emotion fueling “No Expectations” than “Wild Horses” (its obvious predecessor), accomplishing more in 4 minutes than this one does in 5 and a half (and change). Also: “Prodigal Son” (that album’s 2-minute blues cover) is better than “You Gotta Move” (this album’s 2-minute blues cover). Better than Let It Bleed? Fuck no 2, fuck harder: that one was better song-for-song; higher highs (“Gimme Shelter,” most obviously, but also “Let It Bleed” and “Midnight Rambler”), and “Live With Me” was a much better bass-heavy rave-up than this album’s equivalent (“Bitch”). Better than Exile on Main St.? Fuck no: not only can you build a ten-song album from the best of that album that would be better than Sticky Fingers, you would still have 8 solid songs lying around. Furthermore, Exile’s dirty production is something rarely replicated because no one else – including the Stones – ever found themselves in the same circumstances. Sometimes, this one’s too clean, even when it wants to be dirty. And it wants to be – see the cover.
With all that exhaled, let’s talk some observations:
~Methinks the album cover – conceived by Andy Warhol – is one of the greatest draws of the album (sort of like, y’know, half of Pink Floyd’s big albums).
~”Brown Sugar”’s double entendre is a good example– among many other Rolling Stones songs – that you ought to bring up whenever someone criticizes the debaucherous lyrics common in hip-hop. Of course, this doesn’t work if the person criticizing hip-hop is say, a classical or jazz listener. But those sorts don’t exist.
~I’ve only been once, but I imagine “Brown Sugar” is played every night at a 60s/70s club/bar thing over here in Toronto called Stones Place. If it isn’t, it should. (The only song I remember being played that night was the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back.”)
~The album is well-sequenced. They do the obvious, Rolling Stones thing of starting things off with the big hit, continuing the energy with “Sway” (as opposed to the poorly sequenced second songs of Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed), and then following it up with the ballad “Wild Horses.” Elsewhere, the follow their longest and the album’s most ambitious song (“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”) with the shortest (“You Gotta Move”), kick off the second side with the second most energetic song (“Bitch”; a similar move to “Street Fighting Man” starting off Beggars Banquet’s second side) and, crucially, intersperse the second half’s ballads with the well-placed, sing-along-able and melodic getaway “Dead Flowers.”
~”Sway” is the most underrated song from the first side: the triumphant opening guitar line that signals everything that might be possible in the new decade (reminds me more of Led Zeppelin than it does the Rolling Stones); the way the song slows down afterwards to signal the realization that those things might be unattainable, and the push onwards nonetheless: Keith Richards’ backing vocals; Charlie Watts’ masterful drumming; the strings (ie. the 0:50 mark).
~”Wild Horses” is one of hundreds of songs that I never need to hear again but is always a pleasure when I do hear it. A 4-star song if I ever knew one.
~I’m not a huge fan of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” though it’d be foolish to right off the song’s ambitions of smashing two songs/genres together over the course of its 7 minute runtime … much less its executions – it’s a nice ride.
~”Bitch”’s riff always struck me as odd because the punctuating cadence of the riff (1-2-3-4-5-6-NA-NA!) occurs at a completely different place during the second measure (1-2-3-4-NA-NA!-7-8); odd in a good way, because it keeps you on your toes. The horns in the final third look ahead towards the aforementioned production of Exile on Main St.; not calling attention to themselves but adding much to the song all the same. This is in contrast to the horns of “I Got the Blues,” which don’t add much, except maybe more schmaltz.
~Speaking of, “I Got the Blues” does the over-singing/slow-drums/arpeggiated guitar of “Everybody Hurts” slightly better than “Everybody Hurts”, mostly because of that screaming organ solo that finally energizes the song.
~During the electric guitar sections of “Sister Morphine”, my mind went to the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” (though obviously, this one is more conventional). Maybe it’s the titles; maybe it’s the Andy Warhol connection between the two album covers, but more likely it’s because both of them sound like dragging yourself through the dirt. Here, with the chug of the acoustic guitar and the drumming as persuasion.
~”Moonlight Mile” is both well-sung (the way Jagger attempts to hit those high notes is a bit awkward, but endearing all the same) and well-textured; perfect for what the title suggests. One of their most atmospheric; enveloping.
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Summary: their last great album (Some Girls is good, not great); their weakest great album.
Also: I started this with the mindset that I’d just write a one-paragrapher and move on to do a one-paragrapher to demolish Goats Head Soup and look what happened.