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Spins • The Rolling Stones • Hackney Diamonds – Live Edition

| January 8, 2024

 

 

The Rolling Stones

Hackney Diamonds

Live Edition

(Polydor/Interscope/Geffen/A&M)

It isn’t the backhanded compliment it sounds like to say that Hackney Diamonds is a better album than many Stones fans might have anticipated. Giving away the ending: This is strong work that earns its spot on many 2023 year-end lists, and it’s not unfair to call Hackney Diamonds the Rolling Stones’ best work since 1989’s underrated Steel Wheels. Minor quibbles notwithstanding, this set is fun and worthy of the band’s legacy while exhibiting breadth and unexpected spontaneity.

The years following 2005’s A Bigger Bang were filled with sessions helmed by longtime producer Don Was. The most notable fruit from that stretch was the (highly enjoyable) blues covers album Blue & Lonesome, which resulted from a three-session burst in December 2015 that was meant to blow off steam during frustrating work on original material. The inference was that despite occasional single releases like “Doom and Gloom” or “Living in a Ghost Town,” the original material post-A Bigger Bang didn’t possess sufficient collective spark to excite the band into releasing an album. Spontaneity seemed to be off the menu.

Following the jolt of losing beloved drummer Charlie Watts in 2021, Mick Jagger allegedly pulled Keith Richards aside to say the band should start from scratch following 2022 touring commitments to make a new album with an early 2023 due date. The band enlisted younger producer and avowed Stones diehard Andrew Watt and bashed out the bulk of the album in fresh sessions over a couple of months. As a result, Hackney Diamonds doesn’t sound like an album that took 18 years to make.

True, the first single, “Angry,” is a proficient but not necessarily inspired rocker. Despite a terrific vocal performance from Jagger (utterly defying his 79 years at the time) and Richard’s punchy riffing a la “Start Me Up,” the song sounds a bit rote with the hallmarks of a Jagger solo track rather than possessing the Rolling Stones’ elemental, interactive mojo.

However, taking in Hackney Diamonds as a whole offers steadily increasing returns. Many songs hold some touchstone to a past Stones landmark while still sounding evolved and current. The album’s second track, “Get Close,” plays like an edgier cousin to “Waiting on a Friend,” particularly when James King tears into his bristling saxophone solo.

The unabashed slice of country heartbreak “Depending on You” follows. “I invented the game, but I lost like a fool,” sings Jagger. It’s one of Watt’s two grandest production pieces on the album, augmenting Jagger’s captivating chorus melody and Ronnie Wood’s weeping slide guitar with lush strings.

The only notable drawback to Hackney Diamonds’ first few tracks is the audible and distracting use of vocal tuning. It’s part of Watt’s signature sound gracing recent successes with artists including Iggy Pop, Post Malone, and Ozzy Osbourne, but it seems unnecessary to sweeten a vocalist of Jagger’s caliber and experience – especially when Jagger is clearly committed to singing his heart out with raw and emotional performances.

The Stones get by with a little help from their friends, who bring color and character while relishing their chances to sublimate into the sound of “The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band.” Old friend Paul McCartney puts the long-ago manufactured Beatles-Stones rivalry to rest by playing a ferocious fuzz-bass part to match Richards’ riffs during the snarling rocker “Bite My Head Off.” The song adrenalizes the energy of past tracks, “She’s So Cold,” careening into punk-rock territory and featuring a classic Faces-styled solo from Wood. Wood returns with paint-peeling solos during the song of resilience, “Whole Wide World,” in addition to tantalizing sparring with Richards’ riffs and licks.

Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers adds his signature touch on Hammond organ alongside Matt Clifford’s sparkling piano during “Dreamy Skies.” The loping roots-rocker recalls vintage tracks like “Sweet Virginia” and “Country Honk” as Jagger declares an urgent need to go off the grid and “break away from it all.” Wood’s acoustic slide guitar weaves with Richard’s chiming Telecaster licks and Jagger’s soulful harmonica.

The most precious name spied in the liner notes is that of the dearly departed Charlie Watts. Unsurprisingly, the pair of Watts’ drum tracks pulled from Was’ 2019 sessions provide the bedrock for the most familiar-sounding alchemy on the album. Watts’ disco beat drives “Mess it Up” like a revved-up return to the territory of “Miss You” from 1978’s Some Girls. The band gets even closer to that mark during chugging rocker “Live by the Sword,” which returns former bassist Bill Wyman to the fold for four glorious minutes of ineffable magic. The cautionary song fuses the grooves of “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It),” “Honky Tonk Women,” and T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get it On).” Guest Elton John channels both Leon Russell and founding Stone Ian Stewart on piano.

Current Rolling Stones touring drummer and longtime Richards collaborator Steve Jordan honors Watts’ legacy on the rest of Hackney Diamonds, anchoring songs like “Angry” and “Driving Me Too Hard” (which is visited by the ghost of “Tumbling Dice”) with reliable, floor-shaking beats. But it’s, of course, most satisfying for fans to hear Watts himself for what could be the last time (the phrase “I don’t know” naturally follows).

As usual, Richards gets a track to sing. It’s another keeper. During the pensive “Tell Me Straight,” Richards looks for clarity on where he stands in a relationship. “I need an answer; how long can this last?” he sings. Some might suggest he’s referring to the band, but Keef’s always been the Rolling Stones’ truest believer.

Hackney Diamonds builds in strength as the track list progresses, leading to “Sweet Sounds of Heaven.” The song slots alongside gospel-infused favorites like “Shine a Light” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” The presence of Stevie Wonder on roof-raising piano and other keyboards might be considered the album’s standout addition if not for the showstopping duet between Jagger and Lady Gaga. The pair climb toward an ecstatic crescendo. After the song ostensibly ends, Jordan leads the band into a subdued coda as if to simply spend some more time listening to Jagger and Gaga riffing together. As the song reaches a second climax supported by a Stax-styled brass arrangement, all is sublime.

The album closer “Rolling Stone Blues” revisits the territory of Blue & Lonesome, featuring Glimmer Twins Jagger and Richards in a buzzing acoustic duet on the Muddy Waters standard that gave the band its name. Jagger’s harmonica and Richards’ guitar riffs meld intuitively, sealing the promise of the pair’s fortuitous meeting at the Dartford railway station more than 62 years ago as a teenaged Jagger carried home his Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters LPs. If this song was the bookend to the band’s career, it would be a fitting conclusion. However, it has been reported that the Hackney Diamonds sessions were so productive that the majority of a follow-up album is already complete.

Following Hackney Diamonds’ October 2023 release, the band is now preparing the physical release of an expanded 2CD set, including live tracks recorded during the Hackney Diamonds launch event at Racket, NYC. Alongside Stones standards including “Shattered,” “Tumbling Dice,” and “Jumping Jack Flash,” the set includes debut performances of Hackney Diamond tracks “Angry,” “Whole Wide World,” a rowdy “Bite My Head Off,” and a blistering “Sweet Sounds of Heaven” with Lady Gaga in the fray. The new songs spring to life, boding well for those holding tickets to the band’s June 27 and June 30 appearances at Soldier Field. (rollingstones.com)

Jeff Elbel

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