This album is absolutely filthy, dirty, and should probably get itself checked out as soon as possible. This album is that high school kid, the one who skipped chemistry to smoke marijuana with his friends, the one who stole your test answers, the one who was getting his dick sucked by the girl you had a crush on, probably during that test. He’s the guy standing next to you, and while you’re standing so close to the urinal, you can smell everything that came before you, he’s 3 feet away, shoving the fact that he has a big, whopping penis down your throat. Listen to the very first words of the album, that “Oh, yeah!” on “Rocks Off,” delivered like Jagger’s about to stick it in. And not in the normal hole either.
Speaking of which, “Rocks Off” is easily one of the Stones’ best, taking everything they’ve learned up until this point and combining them together in a way that feels natural; “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” whittled down to a pop song. At the same time, the track is definitive of the entirety of Exile on Main St.: there’s no shortage of hooks throughout Exile on Main St., just like how there’s so much packed into “Rocks Off.” Listen to the opening riff with that dirty slide guitar. Catchy, isn’t it? Well, it’s thrown away ten seconds later for a different one. It’s like the Stones were all bubbling with ideas at this point, and they really were, delivering one of the best double albums ever made. Long-time session companion pianist/God Nicky Hopkins gives the track (amongst many others throughout the album) its backbone, not to mention the triumphant brass and Keith Richards’ backing vocals. Listen to the psychedelic breakdown inserted halfway through the track, featuring Jagger’s voice distorted, a trick they’ve done before on their psychedelic tangent, 1967’s Their Satanic Majesties Request. Everything Jagger says here is a hook, even when his voice gets lost underneath everything else; the sunshine bores the daylights out of me too.
And that’s part of the charm of Exile on Main Street: the production is really unique, and gives Exile on Main St. its dirty sound that the Stones have always strove to hit, but never did as successfully as they do here. It’s mostly due to a lack of Jagger involvement, who would always express disdain towards it, “Exile is not one of my favourite albums, although I think the record does have a particular feeling. I’m not too sure how great the songs are, but put together it’s a nice piece. However, when I listen to Exile it has some of the worst mixes I’ve ever heard. I’d love to remix the record, not just because of the vocals, but because generally I think it sounds lousy. At the time Jimmy Miller was not functioning properly. I had to finish the whole record myself, because otherwise there were just these drunks and junkies. Of course I’m ultimately responsible for it, but it’s really not good and there’s no concerted effort or intention” (Jagger, 2003). It’s so unfortunate that Jagger is missing the point here: it’s the whole charm of the album that keeps it the most unique album in the Rolling Stones’s discography. (To say nothing about his confusion about people liking the record given that it has none of the Stones’ big hits.)
Exile on Main St. is one of the few double albums that actually works as a double album for that fact, and I can’t see Exile on Main St. working as a single album. Sure, the Slim Harpo cover “Shake Your Hips” (Charlie Watts is a machine!), the embarrassingly named “Turd On The Run” (the Stones’ equivalent to the Replacements’ “Gary’s Got a Boner”) and the proto-Tom Waits “I Just Want To See His Face” (apparently, his favorite Rolling Stones song) aren’t exactly great tracks as you can hear when you take them out of the album’s context, but they work fine as part of Exile on Main St.‘s identity. Look at the praise other revered double albums get, the Beatles’s The White Album or the Clash’s London Calling. On both albums, the respective artists explored a plethora of genres. Similarly, the Stones explores so many territories of rock music, from the aforementioned psychedelic breakdown of “Rocks Off,” which otherwise would’ve remained a largely blues rock affair, to the late-50’s rock n roll of “Rip This Joint” (this: Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On), to the pop/rock goodness of “Happy”, to the gospel catharsis of “Shine a Light.” Or, to quote Jagger again, in an interview regarding Exile on Main Street‘s 2010 reissue, ”What’s interesting about[Exile] is that it has so many sides to it, so many different musical styles, very bluesy, and it has soul, gospel, and the other quirky little bits that perhaps you wouldn’t have put on a record with only 12 songs.”
I tried reviewing this album before and I concluded with a personal anecdote and the following statement, “Being exiled brings out the best in people. Drugs too.” Thinking back, that statement’s a stretch, but there’s no better evidence than Exile on Main St.: there’s a story behind this album, that the band was literally exiled at this point, having fled England to avoid paying taxes that they couldn’t afford at the time. Thus, the recording of Exile on Main St. took place in two different locations, a basement in Nellcote, before the band picked up and moved to Los Angeles. Moreover, the entirety of Exile on Main St. is steeped in a druggy haze. Keith Richards, in particular, was struggling with substance abuse, while Mick Jagger was more involved in his own personal life, the marriage to his wife and the birth of his child, thus creating fractured recording sessions.
Other highlights include Richards’ “Happy,” who had stepped into the studio early and simply laid down a riff that was deemed good enough to carry an entire track, to which the rest of the band simply added additional instruments to bolster an unashamedly good hook (”I need a love to keep me happy”); Charlie Watts’ playful percussion driving “Sweet Black Angel” (one of the greatest drummers ever); the sun-reaching gospel hook of “Tumbling Dice”; Bobby Keys’ saxophone in the riotous “Rip This Joint.” To say nothing of the underrated country “Sweet Virginia” – one of their most likeable melodies, bolstered by drunken backing vocals and more of Bobby Keys’ saxophone.
And it would be insulting to everyone involved if I somehow managed to make not a single mention of “Shine a Light” which definitely should have ended the album (not to say “Soul Survivor” is bad, though – Charlie Watts help push that one forward). The chorus is the easiest thing to note, incorporating the best use of gospel choir the band has ever done, but all the tiny details sound equally huge: the brief ambient intro; the organ sweeps underneath the second half of the first verse that we’re catapulted into after rapid-fire staccato piano chords; the momentous kick that starts off the second verse (right after “When you’re drunk”), how the lyrics “Angels beating all their wings in time” signals the gospel choir to come in during the verse and the way not a single iota of energy is lost after the second chorus thanks to Jagger’s “Nananana-YEAH!” that launches into Taylor’s great guitar solo.
Summary: one of the best albums by anyone ever; some of the best guitar tone by anyone ever; my vote for the best double album.