It took the Rolling Stones 17 years to put together “Hackney Diamonds,” their first album of all new original material since the not great “A Bigger Bang” in 2005.
The new album releases October 20th but the Stones know they’ve got something special. In an unusual move they’re letting reviews break two weeks early.
It’s all good news, “Hackney Diamonds” is their best album since “Tattoo You” in 1981, by far. It’s leaps and bounds beyond the half dozen albums that followed like “Steel Wheels” and “Dirty Work” and “Bridges to Babylon.” Most of the songs from those records are forgotten, not even included in the Stones’ live sets except for a handful (like “Rock in a Hard Place” or “You Got Me Rocking.”)
Every song on “Hackney” is a hit starting with its two launch singles, the clarion call cousin to “Start Me Up called “Angry,” and “Sweet Sounds of Heaven,” which features Lady Gaga. The group knows what an extraordinary collection this is, too: they’re allowing reviews two weeks before release. This is unprecedented.
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been listening over and over again to this rock revival produced by Andrew Watt as Mick, Keith, and Ronnie — with special guests like Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Charlie Watts (joining in from heaven). and Bill Wyman– simply have discovered the fountain of youth. The songs have echoes of their greatest hits but still sound fresh as ever. You can’t imagine a current band with this kind of energy, skill, and insight.
The lyrics tell the story of men who have unaccountably — after a wild shared journey — walked upright into their 80s looking forward but contemplating what’s behind them. Jagger sings the central theme of the album in the chugging second track, called “Get Close,” He declares, “I walk the city at midnight with the past strapped to my back.” And doesn’t he? And Richards? After 60 years the past is most certainly strapped to their backs.
The songwriting duo even become romantic poets in the magnificent “Depending On You”:
Your fingerprints in the dark, your past and present tangled up in my arms
Our secrets sealed in our scars, sharing a smoke on the steps of a bar.
Are we turning into Bob Dylan here?
The album is a mix of pop, blues and out and out rock. I defy any current band to match the ferocious mix of heart thumping rock and blues of “Bite off My Head” featuring their frenemy Paul McCartney blasting away on bass, for old times. The track rips through the album. I was thinking if they perform this on stage as recorded, they’ll all have heart attacks!
Maybe my favorite track right is “Whole Wide World,” which sounds like a hit single (if any radio station would try it– they’re too regimented now to acknowledge this is the best record out.)
Again Jagger and Richards are touring their shared journeys as young men of mayhem:
The streets I used to walk on, are full of broken glass
And everywhere I’m looking, there’s memories of my past
The filthy flat in Fulham, the smell of sex and glass
I never ever really knew, where I was sleeping next
The smell of sex and gas? Navigating the streets of broken glass? You wonder if they all drank Ayahuasca before they set pen to paper.
It’s not all nostalgia. Modern times creep in to “Mess it Up” when Jagger sings:
You stole my numbers. you stole my codes
You took my keys and then you nicked my phone
Seduced my landlord, broke in my home
Don’t get excited, why don’t ya leave alone
Of course, no Stones collection is complete without a spotlight on Richards. He has one of his best vocals ever in “Tell Me Straight” maybe because he finally gave up smoking. It’s accompanied by a lovely guitar solo that makes for a sharply perfect heartbreaking three minute ode of love and loss.
The album soars until it crescendos in the masterwork seven minute and twenty two second gospel number “Sweet Smell of Heaven” with Lady Gaga doing her best Merry Clayton “Gimme Shelter” counterpoint to Jagger, sending shivers up the spine. Jagger and Gaga sing, euphorically: Let the music play loud, let it burst through the clouds. They sure do, and while Gaga is the perfect spice for this meal, it’s Jagger who really bursts through the reverie. The seven minutes fly by.
It’s only fitting that what could be the final Rolling Stones ends with a capper: Muddy Waters‘ “Rolling Stone Blues.” That’s where it all started for them, singing homages to great blues musician.That they never recorded this one is surprising. It’s where they got their name. Knowing Keith Richards, he probably always saved it so Jagger’s last words on Rolling Stones record would be these:
Well my mother told my father just before I was born
She said “I got a boy child coming, he’s gonna be, he’s gonna be a rolling stone
And so he was, all of them were, thank god.
The craziest thing about “Hackney Diamonds”? You know the band can’t wait to play it live. They could do it from beginning to end in the middle of their show, bookended by hits, and everyone would be happy. These songs demand to be heard that way– and I’ll be they will be. As Jagger sings in “Depending on You”: I’m too young for dying and too old to lose.