- The Washington Times - Monday, September 5, 2005

The Rolling Stones

A Bigger Bang

Virgin Records

“Let Reagan be Reagan,” conservatives used to say of their president in the 1980s, meaning: Let him follow his instincts. Ignore polite opinion.

Some 20 years later, fans of a certain ancient rock band may have gotten used to saying (if not begging) something similar: Let the Stones be the Stones.

Among critics and even some longtime devotees, 1981 is officially the Last Year the Rolling Stones Made a Great Album (that being “Tattoo You”). Subsequent efforts such as “Steel Wheels” and “Voodoo Lounge” were greeted warmly and then forgotten as quickly as the Stones themselves seemed to forget their contents with each mammoth world tour.

The reasons such albums failed to stick are, variously, too much studio gloss, too much filler, obvious pandering to trends or a lack of enduring hit singles. “A Bigger Bang,” out today, likely won’t produce any of the latter, but in every other respect it is a triumph. It’s the Stones being the Stones: direct of punch, impeccable of craft, comically potent of sex drive.

It’s got the spunk of classic late-‘70s LPs such as “Some Girls,” the in-your-face immediacy of “Black and Blue” and the exhilarating stylistic sprawl of the mighty “Exile on Main Street.”

Most of its 16 tracks deal in one way or another with the romantic travails of Mick Jagger, the untamable 62-year-old father of seven. Following the introductory scratch of Keith Richards’ guitar on the kickoff track “Rough Justice,” Mr. Jagger yelps in frustration about his “baby chicken” having “grown into a fox.” He implores another babe to gently break the bad news — you’re about to be dumped, old boy — on the catchy rocker “Let Me Down Slow.” And there’s the heartfelt “Biggest Mistake,” a just-north-of-Nashville ballad on which Mr. Jagger unguardedly shoulders the blame for a relationship flameout.

Let’s pause for a question from our sponsors: Does any of this — do the Stones — still matter?

You may want to take my recommendation with a grain of brown sugar, as I’ve found moments of greatness on non-canonical Stones albums such as “Emotional Rescue” and “Undercover”; believe Mr. Jagger’s 1993 solo album “Wandering Spirit” was an overlooked masterpiece; and think “How Can I Stop” (from 1997’s “Bridges to Babylon,” the band’s last studio album) stacks up against anything Mr. Richards has ever written.

If you haven’t spit out your breakfast cereal in disbelief, then trust me: “Bang” delivers big.

Sure, there are lapses such as “Streets of Love,” an over-programmed Jagger ballad with dreadfully insipid lyrics (“You’re awful bright/You’re awful smart/I must admit/You broke my heart” — this from the man who wrote “Sympathy for the Devil”). And while “Look What the Cat Dragged In” is a hotly performed slice of funk, it comes off unhip — like the Stones trying to ape a Latin wedding band (and pilfering from INXS while they’re at it).

But such demons are exorcised by songs such as “Back of My Hand,” the kind of disarmingly simple blues number that the latter-day Stones have relegated to B-sides of singles but felt comfortable enough to release on its own merits here.

“Bang” was recorded at Mr. Jagger’s residences in southern France and the Caribbean; no coincidence, then, that he rules the album, playing a variety of guitars, keyboards, harmonica, even some bass (Darryl Jones handles most of the latter duty). Each track is stamped with the Jagger/Richards byline, but it’s highly probable that Mr. Jagger wrote more than half the album with little or no input from Mr. Richards.

Some might find the sexagenarian punk rock of “Oh No, Not You Again” to be somewhat laughable, but there’s no denying Mr. Jagger’s creative vitality on several other cuts here. “Rain Fall Down,” a bleak tale of London sleaze, was built on top of a hypnotic funk track with Mr. Jagger playing vibes. He sings himself hoarse on the album’s indisputable masterstroke, the weary travelogue “Laugh, I Nearly Died,” a sultry soul groove patterned after the Isley Brothers.

The much-hyped anti-Bush song “Sweet Neo Con” is the album’s one indisputable clunker. Not because of its politics (which are batty): It’d still be a whiny rush-job even if it were called “Sweet Ear of Corn.” Far more effective — because no one’s really noticed it yet — is the massive left hook of a rocker “Dangerous Beauty,” which appears to be about prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.

What’s Mr. Richards up to all this time? The inveterate bohemian’s lifestyle may finally have caught up with his work habits, but the riffmeister asserts himself like a sledgehammer on “She Saw Me Coming” and delivers Norah Jones’ next hit with “This Place Is Empty,” a gorgeously sloppy honky tonk ballad and one of two songs that feature Mr. Richards on lead vocal (the other is “Infamy,” an agreeable reggae sketch).

Guitarist Ronnie Wood, still struggling with alcohol abuse, is absent from six tracks, and, where it does figure, his playing is better than marginal but less than marvelous. Mr. Wood’s bottleneck work on “Rough Justice” and “Driving Too Fast” fairly scintillates, however.

Drummer Charlie Watts, recently recovered from throat cancer, is simply indomitable. It’s Mr. Watts and Mr. Jagger, in fact, who propel the album. “Bang” has even fewer auxiliary musicians than the punk-era “Some Girls,” with longtime Stones associate Chuck Leavell and producer Don Was credited with its minimal piano and organ embellishments.

“A Bigger Bang,” all told, is a self-contained, down-the-stretch finishing kick from a band that debuted before the Cuban Missile Crisis. And if it doesn’t satisfy the naysayers who’ve been unimpressed since the Carter era, well, there’s no satisfying them.

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