Rolling Stones Records / Geffen Records / Polydor 602458122565
When I heard the Rolling Stones were releasing a new album, just two years after Charlie Watts’s death, I was slightly underwhelmed and plenty cynical. Watts and Keith Richards had been the soul of the band—something Richards has stated often and emphatically. And I would have said that the last thing the world needed was another faded attempt at rock’n’roll by a group of old guys (and I’m speaking as another old guy).
Still, the Stones are road dogs, committed to performing as long as they are able. And their last album, Blue & Lonesome (2016), showed they still had some fire in them. That was Watts’s last full album with the Stones, but he does appear on two tracks on Hackney Diamonds, the group’s 26th album to be released in the US (their 24th in the UK).
Blue & Lonesome consists of interpretations of blues tunes that had inspired the Stones. Hackney Diamonds is an album of new songs by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards: the group’s first since 2005’s A Bigger Bang. Andrew Watt, who produced the latest album, has worked with younger musicians, including Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber, but also with such long-established artists as Iggy Pop and Ozzy Osborne. He was 15 when the Stones released A Bigger Bang.
Watt cowrote “Angry” with Jagger and Richards, and Richards’s snarling guitar, pushed along by Steve Jordan’s stomping drums, ushers us into Hackney Diamonds. Jagger is defensive and miffed in this lover’s quarrel, and it sounds a little silly to hear an 81-year-old sing, “It hasn’t rained for a month, the river’s run dry / We haven’t made love and I wanna know why.” He sings it like he means it, though, and that saves the song. A distorted bass line helps underline the tune’s menacing tone, and Richards fires off a burning solo that continues into the closing moments of the song.
“Get Close” is another ripping guitar track. Richards has created a consistently arresting series of riffs and chord changes on Hackney Diamonds—maybe the strongest since Tattoo You. He and Ronnie Wood lock in telepathically after all these years of playing together, and Richards’s compositions give them something to get their teeth into. James King plays a terrific R&B tenor-sax solo on “Get Close” that adds to the song’s gritty texture. Jagger is in strong voice here and throughout Hackney Diamonds, still able to conjure up a feeling of swagger and danger.
Elton John guests on “Get Close,” but he’s pretty far down in the mix. His barrelhouse piano on “Live by the Sword,” on the other hand, is clearly presented and as vital to the song as the guitars. “Live by the Sword” is one of two tracks Watts recorded with the Stones before he died, and Bill Wyman is the bassist on the song. It’s the last recording to feature four of the original Rolling Stones, and there’s a natural rhythmic flow to the track that the rest of the album, as good as it is, doesn’t quite achieve. It’s a reminder that Wyman never called attention to himself but always played exactly what a tune needed.
Paul McCartney gives “Bite My Head Off” a firm kick with a hard-thumping bass line. The rest of the group steps aside for a moment to give him space for a sharp, cutting fuzz-bass solo that leads into a great Chuck Berry–style rave-up from Richards. Stevie Wonder’s piano gives “Sweet Sounds of Heaven” its gospel core, with some assistance from Matt Clifford on the Hammond B-3. Lady Gaga joins Jagger on vocals, and she occasionally pushes too hard, but the song shows a sincere appreciation of gospel music and even, at this point in Jagger’s life, a real spiritual longing.
“Depending on You” and “Dreamy Skies” give the Stones a chance to revisit country music, and the acoustic “Rolling Stone Blues” brings them back to Muddy Waters and their beginnings. Watt’s production tends to push the instruments on the rock tracks up front, and even these quieter tracks are heavily compressed. I wish he had allowed more room for the instruments to reach your ear. He inexplicably buries things, such as Clifford’s keys on “Tell Me Straight” or John’s piano on “Get Close.” Adjust your audio expectations accordingly.
The intro to “Driving Me Too Hard” is a clear reference to “Tumbling Dice,” but Hackney Diamonds doesn’t reach the heights of Exile on Main St. However, it does compare well with Tattoo You, which is the last Rolling Stones record one could call essential. Hackney Diamonds doesn’t quite hit that level of greatness, either, but it’s a strong and consistent record. It’s more than I expected. I’m glad the Stones did it, and I hope they don’t risk their reputation by doing another.
. . . Joseph Taylor