One could argue that there are enough Rolling Stones albums out there. After all, the group’s gritty, swaggering sound has changed less in four decades than that of their Liverpudlian rivals did in seven years.
But perhaps there is something life-affirming about the fact that a roving band of intermittently drug-addled sexagenarians can still churn out a solid 64 minutes of rock and roll, as if they were still jamming in a garage and preparing to take over the world. If “A Bigger Bang” comes up short of “Exile on Main Street,” we should know better than to hold them to that heavenly standard. Despite some missteps, the Stones come closer here than they have in decades.
“A Bigger Bang” is the Stones’ first studio album since 1998’s “Bridges to Babylon.” The geriatric rockers have since toured incessantly (and profitably: their 2003 tour raked in just short of $300 million.) They bring their road ethic to the studio. Even on the poorer selections they put in a tight, energetic performance. The stripped-down production of Don Was and the Glimmer Twins (Mick Jagger and Keith Richards) allows the Stones’ sleazy charm to shine through in a way it has not since 1978’s “Some Girls.”
The album’s finer cuts are concentrated in its first half. The crunchy opening riff of “Rough Justice” announces the Stones’ return as Jagger snarls with lewd indignation: “Once upon a time/ I was your little rooster/ But now I’m just one of your c*cks.” Ronnie Wood enters with the first of several searing slide guitar parts, and all is well with the Rolling Stones.
“Let Me Down Slow” is a country rocker that features perhaps the album’s best hook, a descending melodic line that is reminiscent of “Sweet Virginia” from “Exile.” Jagger’s titular demands have a self-assurance worthy of one of the most promiscuous men on the planet.
“Rain Fall Down,” another highlight, is a slippery, funky ode to a dingy nocturnal encounter. The song owes more to Parliament than to early Stones. Daryll Jones lays down a slinky bass line as Richards chimes in with a ringing strum, and Ronnie Wood adds staccato flourishes.
Despite their best efforts, the band can’t quite recapture the inebriated grandeur of “Sticky Fingers”-era ballads like “Sway.” On “Streets of Love,” unnecessary and artificial strings, not to mention embarrassing lyrics (“The awful truth, it’s really sad/ I must admit I was awful bad”) holds back what could have been a gem.
It might be unfair to constantly harken back to years-old work, but the acoustic blues and country numbers that have graced almost all their studio work are sorely missed here. The one straight blues cut on the album, “Back of My Hand” (with Jagger on nearly every instrument in addition to requisite lead vocals) fails to build the necessary lyrical momentum. Nevertheless it is a compelling electric blues number, featuring soulful harmonica and buttery slide guitar lines.
The two songs on which Richards takes lead vocals, “This Place is Empty” and “Infamy,” add somber hues to the album’s palette. Though the indestructible guitarist’s gruff baritone doesn’t have the cachet of Jagger’s growl, he provides a respite from the latter’s perpetual aggression. The grizzled 61-year-old’s plea to “bare your breasts/ make me feel at home” is guaranteed to melt the coldest of hearts.
The album loses momentum in its second half, where Jagger’s lyrical shortcomings becoming increasingly prominent and the band’s hooks become fewer and further between. “Driving Too Fast,” is one of several generic, if adequate, rockers; it’s a pity that the Stones cannot muster more than hackneyed automotive metaphor.
The band’s biggest misstep is the album’s “controversial” song, the political protest “Sweet Neo Con.” Over an uninteresting melody, Jagger rants “You say you are a patriot/ I think that you’re a crock of sh*t.” Ouch. Mick and Keith should stick to sex and drugs and rock and roll.
Songs like “Neo Con” and “Too Fast” leave the listener with the aftertaste of mediocrity, which is unfortunate. At 16 songs, “A Bigger Bang” would have been a far superior album had it been culled to its 10 or so highlights. But perhaps we should just be grateful that the Stones are still around to be making music that is, all things considered, this good. It may only be rock and roll, but how can you not like it?