Friday 20 October 2023

Rolling Stones - Hackney Diamonds (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Oct 2023
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"I'm not angry with you," sings Mick Jagger on the opener, called Angry, but this album feels like the product of frustration, as indeed the title suggests, Hackney diamonds being the remnants of windscreens in the street after someone's broken into cars. The Stones haven't released an album of entirely new material in eighteen years and that's an entire generation. It's good to see them getting round to it at last and especially to see them feel so urgent doing so.

Keith Richards credits the death of drummer Charlie Watts in 2021 as the point that prompted the band to get serious enough to get the job done, though they had come close enough a few times in the years prior that Watts appears on two of these tracks, Mess It Up and Live by the Sword. Steve Jordan, who's worked with Richards on many previous projects and who stepped in on the No Filter Tour in 2021 when Watts was unable to play, takes over his drumkit otherwise, working in the same style.

As with their previous album, A Bigger Bang, this often generally stripped down and raw, as if they created this album live in the studio. There are even studio comments at the end of some of these songs that highlight just how much fun they were having. In the case of Sweet Sounds of Heaven, it feels like the song actually ends but Jagger and guest vocalist Lady Gaga are enjoying themselves so much that they build it back up again. It's an infectious feeling and it helps the album. There are no bad tracks here at all but some are definitely better and more memorable than others.

The truest Stones song is that opener, Angry, which is quintessential stuff from them. It has a good beat to kick off that leads into a good riff and a good vocal line. Of course, as with most of the best Stones songs, it builds considerably and they utterly own the groove they generate. After a couple of listens, good becomes great in each instance and it starts to feel like the sort of track that could end up on yet another greatest hits album. The other track I'd call out as traditional for the Stones is Whole Wide World, which works well if we play it in isolation but is otherwise overshadowed by Bite My Head Off right before it.

And that's the angriest, rawest and most surprising song here, certainly angrier than Angry and so much so that it verges on punk. It benefits more than any other track from a live in the studio feel, right down to Jagger urging on the surprise guest bassist, who's none other than Paul McCartney. The Beatles were never just a pop band and he covered a lot of ground with later bands like Wings, but I don't recall any time in which McCartney played anything this angry and raw. He fits it so well that I want to hear more in this vein from everyone involved.

The other big surprise here is how well Sweet Sounds of Heaven works. It's a spiritual, with Jagger leading the way but Lady Gaga matching him and taking over at points. She's not the only guest on this one, as the joyous keyboards are provided by Stevie Wonder and there are contributions from Ron Blake on trumpet and James King on sax, even if the latter is more prominent much earlier on a song called Get Close. King steals that song, to my mind, because Jagger's vocal lines aren't all free and easy, some of them feeling a little forced.

Given that I've already mentioned a punk song and a spiritual, I should add that other genres are represented here too. Dreamy Skies is a laid back country ballad, Mess It Up has a funkier edge and Rolling Stone Blues, which feels like a bonus track rather than a closer, is the blues cover you might expect, stripped down all the way to Jagger and Richards. They're all decent songs, but I wouldn't call any of them essential, unless you have a particular vested interest.

For instance, if you're an old time Stones fan, you might appreciate Watts being on Mess It Up and Live by the Sword. You might also appreciate that the bassist on the latter is Bill Wyman, who last recorded with the Stones during the previous millennium. They're both decent songs, the former a funky one and the latter more subtle but built well. You might also appreciate that Richards sings lead on Tell Me Straight, but he underwhelms, especially when contrasted with Jagger and Gaga in the following track. If you do, you'll want to go straight to them. Otherwise, you'll find the best of this album elsewhere.

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