Heralds proclaim it from the rooftops; messengers spread the word – The Rolling Stones are back with their first album of original material since 2005. Your dad might be declaring it ‘the best CD since Back to Bedlam‘, but is it really worth listening to? The Stones’ latest release reeks of a band past their prime, but diamonds of instrumental and vocal brilliance shine on through the hackneyed songwriting and soulless production.
The album’s opening single, ‘Angry’, inexplicably received high praise upon its release. The track is driven by an uninspired guitar riff and rudimentary drum work. It’s just bland; a doomed attempt at one last top-ten hit. As is the case with the whole album, Andrew Watt’s production is over-polished and over-compressed to the point that any sense of creative authenticity is killed. Jagger, however, growls and gurgles over the track as powerfully as ever. His vocal strength and charisma at the ripe age of 80 are genuinely shocking. Keith Richards’ work (aside from the main riff) is equally as youthful. It’s an okay pop song on the whole, but anyone who claims it’s anything better is listening to The Stones through rose-tinted headphones.
‘Get Close’ is similarly mediocre in terms of lyricism and songwriting, though the sax solo halfway through is a breath of fresh air. The Take That-esque ‘Depending On You’ is a vanilla — yet intimate ballad, with all vocal harmonies, strings and electric organ. The track has a few interesting ideas to offer of love as a commodity to be passed from person to person. Goofy, fun and energetic, ‘Bite My Head Off’ is one of the better songs on the album. Jagger barks out endless canine puns like a terrier who’s seen a rat. Paul McCartney’s contribution on bass is hardly revolutionary but he does a simple job well enough.
Gentle country track ‘Dreamy Skies’ benefits somewhat from simpler production but is bloated with banal lyrics you’ve heard a thousand times before.
The second half of the album opens with ‘Mess It Up’, which seems yet another lifeless pop-rock song until the post-chorus arrives, and the funky rhythm guitar and rising, syncopated bassline sweep you along with the groove of the track. This is one of two songs on the album on which the late great Charlie Watts features. ‘Live By the Sword’ features both Watts and Bill Wyman, the original rhythm section having reunited in 2019 for one final track together. The band (including Elton John on piano) is in top form; each instrument explodes from the mix, the lyrics are fun and it has an irresistible energy. The song is a vast improvement on its precursors. ‘Driving Me Too Hard’ is a tuneful but ten-a-penny country pop track. The most boring song on the album ‘Tell Me Straight’ is sung by Richards, and no amount of reverb can save his vocals from being startlingly weak and inexpressive.
The soulful, 7-minute-long ‘Sweet Sounds of Heaven’, was the album’s second single, featuring Stevie Wonder on keys and vocals from Lady Gaga. It’s an infectious declaration of hope and faith – ebbing and flowing, rising and falling, eventually crescendoing to a horn-filled climax. The chemistry between Gaga and Jagger is electric and the seeming spontaneity of the recording overall gives the track a sense of authentic musicianship – not a common feature on Hackney Diamonds.
It’s Jagger, Richards and a harmonica; the most raw and exposed track on the album – no hiding between sparkly production. Muddy Waters’ version of the song, recorded in 1950, was the band’s inspiration for their name. The song oozes tension and edge, and it’s really nothing short of epic. A stripped-back closing statement on the album, and potentially on the band’s career as a whole, ‘Rolling Stones Blues’ is to Hackney Diamonds what ‘Her Majesty’ is to Abbey Road. “This is the basics of it,” says Richards, on The Howard Stern Show. “This is where it comes (sic) from.”
Hackney Diamonds does not reflect the band’s creativity in a way they would want. The Stones try to go out with a bang, but on-the-nose production and songwriting tailored to radio-play prevent them from creating much more than sterile, thinly veiled pop. Despite this, strong individual performances from Jagger and Richards ensure the afterglow of The Rolling Stones’ former glory can still be glimpsed over the horizon of the album’s mediocrity.
Illustration by Hayleigh McLean