The Rolling Stones’ classic 1972 album Exile on Main St. returns to stores on Tuesday, re-mastered and in some cases re-recorded to bring its signature murky sound into the 21st century. All in an apparent effort at making good on Mick Jagger’s long-held opinion that, as he remarks in the 2003 coffee table book According to the Rolling Stones, “Exile on Main St. is not one of my favorite albums….I’d love to remix the record.”
But is a shinier Exile a better one? Part of the recording’s charm comes from the fact that much of it was recorded in Nellcôte, a house that Keith Richards rented in the south of France during the band’s self-imposed tax exile from the U.K. According to legend, the album came together in the midst of one long party, with the likes of Jimmy Miller and Gram Parsons wandering in and out, pausing only for occasions like Jagger’s wedding to Bianca.
Never a hits machine, with the exceptions of “Tumbling Dice” and “Happy,” Exile instead stands as a memento of a certain time, much like Sgt. Pepper or Purple Rain. Unlike those era-specific examples, however, its sound—all essentially variations on the Stones’ love for gutbucket blues—sidesteps those efforts’ then au courant fascinations with, respectively, psychedelia and synth-drums to transcend its time and become what many believe to be one of the best rock albums ever made.
It’s tough to play just a track or two and then move on. From the bleary-eyed opener “Rocks Off” (favorite line: “The sunshine bores the daylights out of me”) and the nearly out-of-control “Rip This Joint” to the bluesy numbers such as “Stop Breaking Down,” country tunes like “Sweet Virginia,” and muscular rockers like “All Down the Line,” Exile captures the Stones in all their many moods, before corporate rock and its attendant laziness fully set in.
Jagger hasn’t been lazy with his remixing, however, as the new Exile sounds sharper than it ever has—in my opinion, to its detriment. The vocals are moved more determinedly upfront, of course, but the horns, guitars, drums … everything sounds too bright. Fans bought the Beatles re-masters last year because the sonic upgrades were long overdue, and a pristine-sounding Abbey Road makes the case for that album’s greatness even stronger. A pristine-sounding Exile is a self-contradiction.
Meanwhile, Jagger’s seen fit to include 10 outtakes on the re-mastered set’s bonus disc. These range from alternate takes of “Soul Survivor” with Richards on lead vocals and a shambling early version of “Loving Cup” to boisterous gospel rave-up “Plundered My Soul,” Latin rocker “Pass the Wine” (not 1000 miles different than War’s “Spill the Wine” in its arrangement) and a cleaned-up version of “Good Time Women,” already familiar to bootleg collectors as an early take on “Tumbling Dice.”
But of course merely scouring the tracks of years of crud wasn’t enough, so Jagger recorded new vocals in some cases, with Richards and even fleeting guitarist Mick Taylor contributing some new licks. This isn’t causing the outrage heard when posthumous Jimi Hendrix albums like Crash Landing, with newly recorded backing tracks, came out, but it still seems like a bit much. The completed songs do sound (for the most part) like they could have come from those original sessions, but it’s hard to put the knowledge of what’s being perpetrated out of mind.
Since the Stones still have to beg for spare change on the street, Exile is also available in a “super deluxe” version, which includes a 30-minute DVD with excerpts from new documentary Stones in Exile (also available separately), concert movie Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones, and the notorious film Cocksucker Blues. Complete bootleg versions of the latter two are preferable, and Netflix can provide you with the first one at a cost slightly more attractive than the $179.99 list price for this monstrosity (which also includes the album on vinyl and a 50-page book).
So, the new Exile at once looks back at a singular time in the band’s, and rock ‘n’ roll’s, history, and occupies the present, recession-be-damned era of Jagger, Inc. Let ‘em bleed you dry.