I was never in any doubt about who was the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world, and neither were they. I was never in any doubt they were much better than the Beatles, a claim I spent the 1990s proving mathematically, creating a stunning advance in quantitative aesthetics. Perhaps I’m too rarely in any doubt, but in this case I strongly agree with myself. I always take that as a confirmation of my claims.
Why are the Stones the greatest rock band ever? Because they understood best what rock music is, to such an extent that it ended up identical to the style of their oeuvre. I could try to define rock as "electrified blues made by white boys" although that doesn't quite get it, because, for example, Charlie Musselwhite is a blues, not a rock artist. But at this point I might just define “rock music” in the following terms: the degree to which any song, album, show, or band is a rock song, album, show, or band is the degree to which it resembles the work of the Rolling Stones.
The new Rolling Stones album, Hackney Diamonds, I’m happy to report, resembles the Rolling Stones almost perfectly, though like a lot of critics I find myself missing the no-longer-alive rhythm section of Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman. Or maybe I'm working at missing them, because it seems like any extremely competent drummer working with a fine producer could sound reasonably like Watts. Seems to be harder than that, though.
But the age-80-or-so remaining Stones understand exactly who they are and what makes them great. Hackney Diamonds makes you realize that the band could’ve and should’ve been putting out an album of original studio recordings every few years all this time. I think they might’ve kept developing in their subtle yet straightforward way: at any rate, I value both the continuity and the excursions on this one.
Maybe it's their best since Exile on Main Street! "Their best since Exile on Main Street" became a critic's joke in the 1980s: you'd use it to describe a bad debut album by a band no one ever heard from again, or for that matter to describe a movie or a meal. What it registered was the long decline of the Stones, according to the critical consensus, and also the charm and power that everyone found every time they heard one of those simple Keef licks or Jagger sneers. Each time out, critics wanted to love it, worked at loving it, wanted it to be Exile. On the other hand, looking back, "late Stones" were underappreciated. There wasn't going to be, couldn't be, another Sticky Fingers, but there was lots of good shit.
Dirty Work (1986) was great, and Steel Wheels (1989) and Voodoo Lounge (1996), and Bridges to Babylon (1997), and A Bigger Bang (2006). If you want to hear the whole Stones schtick boiled down to a single note, listen to Richards swagger through Gunface. But I'm not here to write a retrospective appreciation. Hackney Diamonds is a beautiful late addition to late Stones. What made the Stones great is that they understood that rock music isn’t high art. Perhaps they just understood that they couldn't very plausibly move toward sounding like "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" or incorporate the pseudo-classical keyboard stylings of Rick Wakeman. But they and we knew, if they and we knew nothing else, that they could rock.
If they made excursions, and they constantly did (into disco, or punk, or reggae, or even hip-hop), they did it straightforwardly and immediately stripped back to the essence. No band, in concert or on record, ever sounded more live. That's rock, and that's also what that Watts drum hit meant: here we come! Here it is, the essence of human life and energy! We call this shit rock 'n’ roll!
There are a number of great Stones songs on the new album, and now just the sheer fact that you've hit "play" on your phone and a real band is rocking into your head through your earbuds means something that it couldn't have meant before. Jagger's in great voice: he hasn't sung this well on record since Exile on Main Street, harhar. That voice is the most familiar in the world, now.
The experience of hearing him now on the first single, "Angry," or the paradigmatic Stones anthem "Whole Wide World" is hearing the very opposite of autotune. It's fun, that snarl and sneer. And now it just sounds so fucking real. It 's suddenly not just where we came from but where we need to go next. Or I can see maybe the Killers hearing this and going: we really need to sit in the same room next time we record, and do it in three takes.
They revisit a number of their classic moves here. "Bite My Head Off," featuring Paul McCartney on bass (!), brings back not the Beatles but the classic Stones-punk moment that gave us "Shattered" and "Let Me Go." Lady Gaga appears on the blues-gospel "Sweet Sounds of Heaven," and delivers a powerful tribute to the female singers who recorded with the Stones over the decades, in particular Merry Clayton.
Songs like "Live By the Sword," which gives you one of the classic Jagger lyrics of all time, feel at once traditional and fresh. I always liked Jagger the lyricist in many respects. The way he identifies, repeats, and twists a phrase like "die by the sword," for example, is distinctive. No one is going to mistake it for Milton or Joyce, however, and that's really the point. You won't, or shouldn't, mistake Bob Dylan or John Lennon for Milton, but they may have momentarily mistaken themselves.
Anyway, I don't see why the Rolling Stones shouldn't keep on rocking as long as they’re able. And I think they’re telling us on Hackney Diamonds that we should keep rocking as long as we are able too. The Stones, and Chrissie Hynde, and we, are alive! I agree with that too.
—Follow Crispin Sartwell on X: @CrispinSartwell