“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – Faulkner
Tell me about it. The Rolling Stones were releasing their new album and getting ready to tour, and the word on the street was mockery. The “wrinkly rockers” were lampooned for hitting the road in their “steel wheelchairs”, and roundly pilloried for still assuming themselves to be a going concern at their ridiculously advanced age.
They were in their 40s. A few years later, David Letterman would greet the Voodoo Lounge tour with a Top 10 List including gags about “The Rolling Stones Live, Plus Keith Richards”, “Instruments Hooked Up to the Clapper Tour” and “Metamusic.” Keith was 51. And that was all in a previous century, and about a dozen albums ago.
What was that gag about the Stones being old? The Rolling Stones, in a central way, were old when they were young — or, at least, wanted to be young or appear so. Mick Jagger met Keith Richards almost 62 years to the day on October 17, 1961, on Platform 2 of the Dartford train. Nineteen-year-old white English blues “men”, with a singer who was a pretty decent harmonica player, playing songs by Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Howlin’ Wolf — which is no mean feat, but they didn’t even write their own songs.
That was a minute ago — actually, a dozen albums ago, if you count the live ones. Since then, the Rolling Stones have continued to unprecedented pursuit of unprecedentedly continuing to exist. It is a feat that is likely to never be repeated. Madonna won’t tour at 80. Neither will Metallica or U2. Especially not U2, given it’s the drummer who breaks down first. Except for Charlie Watts, of course. I mean, he died, but he was still the touring drummer when he did. Again, everything about the Rolling Stones is unprecedented.
Age isn’t entirely a state of mind; there’s not much mental about crippling arthritis. But in terms of unprecedentedness, you can add that the band’s 26th studio album is their best since Lady Gaga was a toddler.
About that: when a band this famous and… established, releases an album, it cannot simply be a collection of great songs, especially when your greatest songs are behind you. It must be an event — just ask U2. And so, Lady Gaga electrifies the absurdly massive song “Sweet Sounds of Heaven”, and we build around that. She is one of many guests, including Paul McCartney, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Bill Wyman (!), Benmont Tench, and Rick Astley – okay, kidding about that last one, but why not?
After the last glitter of the gospel stunner has settled to the floor, one is left with the rockerz. As with most super-late career releases, the Stones are pro forma. There’s nothing wrong with “Bite My Head Off” (McCartney’s blown-speaker bass is great), “Whole Wide World” or “Mess It Up”, none of which is as ear-catching as “Angry”, but the key test of any song is simple: are you listening if it isn’t this band? Not to “Driving Me Too Hard” you’re not. There are many nods to the past — as is their right. I mean, it’s their past, so “Get Close” lifts the sense of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”.
Needless to say, the biggest thing missing is any kind of moving, emotional reflection of Charlie Watts’s passing. I mean, he was only their drummer forever, but that’s the Stones. They don’t really do real heartbreak. Keef and Ronnie find more vitality in the ol’ Chuck licks than you’d have imagined. “Live By the Sword” kicks off sounding like a disaster and swaggers into a patented mugging Jagger drawl: “I’m gonna treeeat you rii-iight”. And therein lies your lesson in Jaggerism. Put simply, the singer had the most at risk here, as he was well aware in “Depending On You”: “I’m too young to die / and too old to lose”.
Indeed. Return to the fact that Hackney Diamonds is easily the best-sounding album of 2023, with producer Andrew Watt driving the Stones to tighten it up. Listen to “Driving Me Too Hard”, and know that without Watt, there is no way this band plays this tightly and concisely, with this crackling energy. Admittedly, that comes at the expense of any kind of Stonesy raggedness.
And yet. The Stones have released an album in 2023, and it is fully credible. “Dreamy Skies” is affecting — awful title aside. By the time you reach that “Tumbling Dice” nod in “Driving Me Too Hard”, the momentum is too great. One could consider a very simple notion – how bad could this have been? I mean, imagine the disastrous possibilities. It could have sounded like U2’s Songs of Innocence; it could have sounded like an album and a band herniating themselves into a misbegotten, unattainable relevance. But the Stones create their own relevance. And when you step away from the rockerz, you hear it.
And speaking of energy, the first time I saw this footage of Lady Gaga’s star turn in “Gimme Shelter” was just after I reviewed Stef Germanotta in Montreal. One would have been forgiven for mistakenly thinking: who is this twit? Who is this weirdo in the Kiss stilt heels and the dollar-store wig strutting about the Stones’s stage? And looking back now, you are witnessing greatness. She becomes a character, in her wig and outfit, with a massive voice and personality that challenges Mick and pulls him out of the settled Stones-every-night place he was in. She does so again in “Sweet Sounds of Heaven”, bookended by the album’s two best songs. Sure, it’s the Stones regardless, but my gosh, does he love having that female foil and pushback onstage.
Except when he doesn’t. The last song, a cover of “Rolling Stone Blues”, and the elegant, elegiac, “Tell Me Straight”, with Keith’s solo turn performed with a level of deeply earned honesty, take Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, by themselves, back to their beginning, back to Dartford. Together, those two songs make a time-immemorial argument for Hackney Diamonds: No matter how old or fat he is, the Champ is the Champ until you knock him out.