What does it sound like?:
The Stones are back! Hackney Diamonds struts like a Stone, riffs like a Stone and rocks like a Stone. It actually follows the blueprint of their imperial phase. There is the ancient Blues cover (Rolling Stone Blues), the one with the stretched-out musical interlude (Sweet Sounds Of Heaven), the country song (Dreamy Skies), the social verité (Whole Wide World), the Keef lead vocal (Tell Me Straight) and the real jaw-dropper (Depending On You). Only the smutty rocker is missing, unless you accept the swearing in Bite My Head Off, but there are plenty of riffs to compensate. There has been no musical progression since the mid seventies but who wants groundbreaking experimentation from The Rolling Stones?
Most of it was recorded straight after the 60th anniversary tour and the band are a well-oiled machine. It’s the same band that recorded The Bigger Bang in 2005, apart from Steve Jordan. Rolling Stones guitars have a tendency to being sloppy but, here, they are sharp and focussed. Keef has adapted his playing to his state of arthritis and has come up with a raft of fiery riffs. The Keef/Ronnie interweave and solos are lean and purposeful. The piano, such a key instrument for all of the very best Stones’ albums, is played by three different musicians: Matt Clifford in the Mr Dependable Ian Stewart role, Elton John a decorative Nicky Hopkins and Stevie Wonder brings the Billy Preston Gospel and Soul. The ghost of Can’t You Hear Me Knocking Bobby Keys is present in the sax solo on Get Close, Lady Gaga channels Merry Clayton for Sweet Sounds Of Heaven and there is a feint to Tumbling Dice at the start of Driving Me Out. Charlie’s kick drum is a very welcome presence on a couple of tracks. Mess It Up verges on INXS Pop/Rock but Live By The Sword is a rollicking old Stone convention with Bill Wyman and Elton John barrelling along the groove. The rhythm section is sublime, each guitarist gets a solo and Mick is spitting feathers. It illustrates how good this album is. If Live By The Sword had been released before Angry, devoted fans would have melted with joy. However, effectively a simple list song, there are a number of better tracks on Hackney Diamonds. Charlie’s anointed replacement, Steve Jordan, sits bolt upright on the front edge of his drum stool, doing a bang-up job, and Darryl Jones’s bass is deliciously thick and beefy. In all the excitement, it’s easy to overlook Paul McCartney, fuzz-bassing on the punk-thrash of Bite My Head Off.
As great as the guitars are, the real star is Mick. He sounds totally rejuvenated, like a man half his age, snapping, snarling and whirling like a dervish. He is fully engaged with these songs, relishing every last morsel. His vow of incoherence is over. His diction is clear in a London accent, with only a few vowels bent beyond all recognition. Lyrically, there is no storm threatening, no crossfire hurricane, no head full of snow. He takes the option of focussing on the here and now, beset by relationship problems, paying dearly for all those years of depravity when he carelessly used women as he pleased. He spends five of the twelve tracks bickering with angry women, a sixth trying to escape and a seventh being dumped. Just read the song titles, Angry, Bite My Head Off, Mess It Up, Live By The Sword, Driving Me Too Hard, and you can tell Mick ain’t getting laid (much). No wonder he’s irascible and horny across most of the album. Dreamy Skies, all pedal-steel and brushed snare, is a safe haven longing for the peace of the great outdoors and the familiarity of Hank Williams on the radio. The song is so soporific, Mick can barely rouse a trace of the old comedy accent. Given their advanced age and long history of hedonistically dancing with Mr D, you’d expect something portentous, but there is very little hand-wringing, end-of-life philosophising. There are some regrets. Get Close depicts a troubled Jagger wandering the streets, reflecting ruefully on his past while paying for a current day tryst. Whole Wide World, featuring a couple of belligerent guitar solos, revisits their old stomping ground to reminisce about their rebellious youth. It’s a reminder that The Stones’ unique selling point was always their attitude. They aren’t exactly growing old disgracefully but they still behave as though they are in a gang with the whole world against them, despite all those packed stadiums and bulging bank accounts.
There are two major epics that could genuinely occupy a spot on an imperial album. The first is a tender ballad, Depending On You, one of three co-writes with young producer Andrew Watt, who should take a great deal of credit for stimulating their creative juices. It’s the kind of beautifully ambivalent ballad they perfected on Goats Head Soup. The woman has found someone new, its emotional ups and downs accentuated by sensitive, respectful guitars and swept along by an undercurrent of strings. Mick declares himself too young to die and too old to lose. Sweet Sounds Of Heaven is astonishing. A theatrical Gospel-Blues showdown between two extravagant vocalists egged on by a dazzling band performance and a kitchen-sink production. It’s a real showstopper.
Keef has his moment at the mike, his voice mellow and mournful, singing a feeble wisp of a tune as he endures yet another break-up. “Is my future all in the past?” he asks tentatively, glancing at his expensive watch. To finish, they go back to the very beginning to the Blues number that gave them their name when they first formed the band. Left to themselves on a soundstage miked up to sound as if it’s 1928, Keef plays his battered acoustic, Mick his harmonica and they duet on Muddy Waters’ brooding, minor-hued Rolling Stone Blues.
Hackney Diamonds is far better than any of us could have imagined. It certainly withstands far more than six listens. Of course, these are not The Stones of their heyday. In fact, they are at their weakest when they try to be but there is nobody that sounds like The Stones in 2023. Vibrant, virile Rock music is much needed. The Rolling Stones, once again, show us how it’s done.
What does it all *mean*?
This album is not about sealing a legacy, it is a continuation of a defiant career, riding roughshod over standard norms. Most of these tracks should work well live, sit comfortably within their greatest hits set and still excite the audience. Apparently, there are plenty more tracks in the can. Perhaps, there will be a superdeluxe version next year with bonus tracks and a live gig. You can buy the Blu-ray now.
Hackney Diamonds provides enough energy to extend their already remarkable longevity for some years to come.
Goes well with…
A record player or a car. Although the art work is tawdry and, at 48 minutes, it’s two tracks too long, Hackney Diamonds is designed to be experienced on vinyl. Failing that, singalong at the top of your voice as you put pedal to the metal.
20th October 2023
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