Album Review: The Rolling Stones – Hackney Diamonds

[Polydor; 2023]

Every day, Mick Jagger goes jogging. One step in front of the other, a constant rhythm – one, two; one, two – in lock step with the heart – boomboom, boomboom. No matter the weather or climate. It’s important to keep the old motor going. Stay locked in. Eyes ahead, careful not to stumble, passing by people, no one recognises him, as the structure of the street changes to anticipate his moving body, trees and cars wheezing buy, a curious dog lifting its head, then already gone, passed by.

I wonder what Mick thinks of, when he’s jogging. A lifetime of memories and histories, family and friends, drifting into age. Maybe some days he thinks of Their Satanic Majesties Request and Undercover; the two albums where The Rolling Stones don’t sound like The Stones. Widely derided upon their release, both by critics and fans, they’ve become dark horse favourites, cult albums which expanded the group’s sound. Documents of tension and artistic opposition – real works of art, yet heterogenic. Mick doesn’t like them (neither does Keith), but there seems some magical appeal to them that more cohesive works deny the fans. No one remembers Steel Wheels or Black and Blue these days – something must be there. Maybe that’s what Mick thinks about, while jogging.

Mick certainly won’t think about reviews anymore. It’s always the same anyways, divided in two classes: the overwritten praise and the overindulgent hate. A new Stones album is either their best in decades, or a lifeless proof of them being tired, rich old fucks who play songs for divorced dads. That must make Mick smile – as if the same publications won’t hand out high scores to big billionaire artists of contemporary times, praising product like Beggars Banquet. And the others, as if they hadn’t said the same thing about Voodoo Lounge, one of the band’s very best records, mature and memorable. Who cares anyways – it’s just nice to be back in the ring with the boys, a break from performing to finally, really, be a musician again, move forward, document the moment, the personal perspective. But Charlie’s gone – he’s missing, the beat that kept things grounded. Maybe that’s what Mick thinks about, while he’s jogging: the friend lost along the way.

The end – it sounds so bleak and banal. That’s one to think about: if Hackney Diamonds will be the last, the post-script. It doesn’t matter, really, in the end – but maybe, when Mick jogged that day, he realised that the album mattered, more than others. Enlisting an outsider to produce this time: Andrew Watt, a pop-guy – but one who gets it. No, there can’t be a repetition of Dirty Work, where the band wrote and recorded ahead of Mick, who dropped by later to record over their dry tracks. Or of the grab-bag Bridges to Babylon, losing itself in modernism… oh Jesus, please not another “Might As Well Get Juiced”. This time, things have to be sharp, cohesive, youthful even. Nobody must miss Charlie, because he is missing, will be for the rest of them. As diverse as Undercover, as memorable as Tattoo You, as charismatic as… the thoughts drift to something else – it’s a lot to think about, while jogging!

The cover matters, more than all! Something sleek and sexy, a bit Warhol, a bit Alan Aldridge – nostalgic and modern in one… yes, sexual innuendo, fingers grabbing and probing: very good, both sleazy and self-aware. A mix that must be retained, transported onto the other elements. After all, sexism isn’t all that hot anymore. Some of the best Stones-songs had the worst lyrics, so why not have some fun with with the sewage of growing older? Find the whole palette, all different flavours, and lay them out…

Mick must think, occasionally, about the life he could have led, besides this one. Yes: the hermit lifestyle! Hackney Diamonds‘ “Dreamy Skies”, a classic blues track, all 1971, a refutation of urban futurism: “An old AM radio is all that I’ve got / It just plays Hank Williams and some bad honky-tonk / ‘Cause I got to take a break from it all”. Stripped down and simple, using Keith’s instinct and Ronnie’s humor to lead the track in a pleasant lethargy.

Let’s expand from there, lean into the organ some more, maybe aim for a modernised “Moonlight Mile”. “Depending on You” has the melody and passion – it even hits the heartbreak: “I invented the game but I lost like a fool / Now I’m too young for dying and too old to lose”. It’s genuine and catchy. But then it goes too far, adds too many strings and pomp in the mix – a finale worthy of a Taylor Swift climax. It ain’t spoiled – still good, but it could have been great. Let’s not dwell, move forward, further – onwards! One, two; one, two…

Tone matters, more than anything. It can’t be as it used to be, just 10 types of “Brown Sugar” or retreads of “Soul Survivor”… how about something hard hitting? Somewhere between hard rock and punk, a little blown out, a little more agile. The Stones have never been, let’s try! A bit of glam, a little disco, too: “Get Close” sways from one side to the other. A busy beat carries Keith’s wave-guitars forward, the chorus is simple and easy to repeat, a song to drink to, a song to run to. Let’s continue on this path: “Whole Wide World” amps up the riff and dials down the drums, embraces the paranoia – almost like something off Undercover. What a great lead single, with an acidic Ronnie solo and the lyrics winking at old age “When the whole wide world’s against you / And life’s got you on the run / And you think the party is over / But it’s only just, only just begun”.

One, two; one, two. Who said things have to end at 80? Paul still got it – why not call him up? Why not propose a heavy track, something Iggy would have done with The Stooges? “Bite My Head Off” feels like an Exile on Main Street composition that has been beefed up into metallic gravel that heats up under the soles, all crunching bass and adversary tone. A romp! But not the best the Stones have done. Neither is “Angry”, which feels like a warm-up from an earlier era, all groove and arena-rock. It’s where the past shows – you just can’t run from the things that came before.

Yet I doubt Mick thinks about the constant comparisons, the call-outs and contrarians: “Oh ‘Mess it Up’ is just ‘Miss You’.” – “How come ‘Driving Me Too Hard’ is allowed to remake ‘Tumbling Dice’ for Mick?” – “Is that the vocal melody of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ on the closing ‘Sweet Sounds of Heaven’?”

Because in the end, the songs work, somehow. Maybe it’s because of magic – yes, that strange aura within music which diverts the good from the bad, this capture of a single moment where the physical body struggling with itself, the voice cracks and the drums rise and the guitar tone hits just… match!

“Sweet Sounds of Heaven” and “Driving Me Too Hard” really hit these spots. The latter embraces the interplay of two iconic rock’n’roll guitarists to frame Mick’s vibrant and youthful voice in contrast to Keith’s darker voice as backing on the chorus, while the former makes good use of Lady Gaga doing Tina Turner and Mick doing Mickey Mouse. Who cares if it’s a retread if it so accurately captures the energy of a boozy bar evening? Hell, rock’n’roll was always a lie, anyways – a myth we tell our kids to feel a little more alive, a little more transgressive than we’ve ever been: a little legend.

I wonder if that’s something Mick thinks about – how in the end, the performer is all the same as the fan: just a product of a greater story we tell ourselves to believe in – some kind of religious image enshrined within our biography. Reading how Watt wired up the studio with microphones, a spellbound Gaga finding herself in a dream of the past, these mythologies mix into the current day – for those who want to believe in something special, of course!

For a more ruminative perspective, there’s the oddly glowing “Tell Me Straight”: a melancholic Keith-composition which, at just under three minutes, manages to wrap up the heartbreak of old age, condensing an entire biography into ruminations. What’s the closest Keith could ever get to his Blackstar? “I need an answer, how long can this last? / Just tell me straight, don’t make me wait / Is my future all in the past? / Yeah Tell me straight, tell me straight”. Always the rhythm guy, this will have to do. Complimenting the album’s closing quarter, “Rolling Stone Blues” fades in like a dusty bonus track. Reduced to voice, harmonica and guitar, its dusty atmosphere channels the ghost of Brian Jones’ vision that started this all. It reeks of the final page, the full circle moment – another narrative, possibly a lie. Because the jog ain’t over ’till it is! One, two; One, two.

Mick must have thought of a good title, at some point: Hackney Diamonds, the worthless shattered glass shards scattered in the streets after a robbery. Just self aware enough to allow for iconography, clever without being idiotic. Mick, for all his flaws, is not stupid – he knows of all the faux imitators, all the postures and perversions of rock: he invented some of them! So I wonder if he thought, sometimes while jogging, of the saxophone melodies of James King, and how incredibly good they sound. If he got stuck on the euphoria of Elton John’s and Stevie Wonder’s contributions. I wonder if he thinks about how whacky “Live by the Sword” is; a “Let It Bleed”-type track with Watts and Wyman returning for one last ride of the old team. He surely must recognize that Steve Jordan manages to sound like Charlie in all but his trademark quality: this tiny delay of just half a second, which always jogs behind Keith’s guitar. That’s missing, but there’s so much that’s gone down the road, behind Mick…

At 80, maybe he doesn’t think of much, while running. Maybe he just meditates, with music on, or quietly counting the speed of his own breath, the beat of his own heart. In the end, he must be content: returning after 18 years of no original album material, his band has handed in a cohesive record that is fun and punchy, embraces all the varieties of blues, rock, wave and bullshit that made them to the greatest rock’n’roll band of all time.

Is it as good as Voodoo Lounge? Not really – it’s too content to produce something special to allow for the simple charms of just trying some things out. Nothing here is improvised or the result of sudden bursts. But this allows for it to abandon the need to constantly be the same thing, to reiterate the same ideas, and just engage in all facets of a great group dynamic. It’s not the best Stones album in 45 years, but it’s the album people will say is the best in 45 years.

Yeah, Mick can be content: Hackney Diamonds is a really great late Stones album, albeit just a pretty good rock album in the canon of history. That’s a compliment. And I doubt he cares or thinks about this statement, because he’s way too busy running, jogging forward.

Here he comes, zooming past: Hey Mick, good one, give my love to Keith and Ron! Was that a smile? Ah, he doesn’t even nod, I doubt he heard it… Well, bye Mick, see you around next time. Maybe. There he goes, onwards… or wait, maybe it wasn’t even him? They all look the same with the hood over their heads: legends and hustlers alike.