Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Rolling Stones 52: Hackney Diamonds

It took Charlie Watts dying for the Rolling Stones to “set a deadline” for bashing out an all-new album like the last one, which came out eighteen years before. Yet Hackney Diamonds has something that album didn’t have, and maybe we can thank album producer Andrew Watt, who was born after they completed the tour supporting Steel Wheels but before Flashpoint was released. (They must have really liked him since they gave him co-writing credit on the first three songs; somewhere Mick Taylor is seething.)

Granted, they’d put out new songs for compilations and expanded reissues, but this time there’s a unified purpose. The core band is down to Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Ronnie Wood. Darryl Jones isn’t on the album at all; the bass is handled by either Watt or one of the special guests (when specifically credited) or by either Keith or Ronnie (when there’s no bass credit). Charlie is on only two songs, but at least that’s one more than Lady Gaga, as one of our correspondents pointed out. We’ve been very vocal in our opinion that without Charlie there isn’t any Stones, but he himself handpicked Steve Jordan to fill in for the tour he had to miss, initially for health reasons, and eventually because he was dead. We like Steve, and not just because of his X-Pensive Wino status, and he equips himself well throughout the album.

They wisely start with the riff-happy “Angry”, which was hilariously previewed weeks before release with a website that purposely crashed when fans tried to access it. It’s dumb but catchy, with a great turnaround chorus that gets better. “Get Close” has a swagger in the rhythm (again, real nice job, Steve) and some more solid guitar. James King provides a nice Bobby Keys-style sax solo over a percussion break, and if you listen closely enough you might hear Elton John on piano. The third track is a good slot for a slow one, and “Depending On You” delivers without being too cloying. Mick’s tethered in his yell, and while there are strings on the track, they’re very subtle and effective. With “Bite My Head Off”, they seem to be retreading to the first track, with Mick back to shouting a moronically profane lyric, but none other than Paul McCartney on bass. (Sadly, right after Mick namechecks him, a guitar solo buries his contribution.) When Keith is heard harmonizing on the bridges, all is right with this song. “Whole Wide World” would be the social commentary tune, sung with a forced Cockney accent, but still solid. Suddenly it’s time for another quiet one; “Dreamy Skies” sounds like the type of thing Keith would sing, but Mick does it well, with Keith in support. The harmonica solo goes nicely with the laidback guitars.

The cycle goes back to upbeat and accusing on the mildly dance-y “Mess It Up”, which has Charlie on drums, and it’s obvious. He’s also on “Live By The Sword” (they even include his count-in), a mildly T.Rex-sounding track that also features the return of Bill Wyman on bass, and Elton pounding the piano into submission. Mick’s still ticked off for “Driving Me Too Hard”, but it’s a slower groove, and welcome, especially when we hear Keith. Speaking of which, it’s not until “Tell Me Straight” that he gets a lead vocal, and this time Mick provides the harmony, keeping it all in the band. The only nod to contemporary music comes via “Sweet Sounds Of Heaven”, a slowly building burner with Sticky Exile car horn saxes. Mick even uses his falsetto over the extended coda. It’s got Stevie Wonder on three different keyboards, but he’s buried in the mix to favor this century’s answer to Dale Bozzio. (At one point we could swear she sings “I hear the sweet smell” and “I smell the sweet sound” and we don’t think it was intentional.) The last statement is given over to just Mick and Keith, the original partners and last men standing, duetting on “Rolling Stone Blues”, the Muddy Waters song that started it all.

At 48 minutes, the album is solid and not at all bloated. They say they had enough tunes left over for a follow-up, but somehow Hackney Diamonds is a fitting finale to a very long career that saw serious highs and lows. They weren’t supposed to live this long, much less keep rocking at this age. If they really can keep going, at this level, then everybody wins.

One thing this review did not cover upon initial post was the numerous vinyl versions and then that were dumped on the market, likely so collectors buying multiple copies would catapult it to the top of the charts. Not three months after the album’s release, a “Live Deluxe Double CD” was issued, likely to recoup momentum lost when “Now And Then” by the Beatles came out. The second disc here included the seven songs performed at the album launch the week of original release; four of these are from the new album, including Lady Gaga on “Sweet Sounds Of Heaven”, wherein she still smells them. “Shattered” is the opener, and a good thing, since the guitars are a little stiff. The rhythm section, which does include Darryl Jones, kicks.

Rolling Stones Hackney Diamonds (2023)—