The Rolling Stones: Hackney Diamonds [Album Review]

The Rolling Stones
Hackney Diamonds
Geffen Records [2023]

Okay, friends, let’s be honest. There’s no way in hell that this late-in-life album from the Rolling Stones has any right to sound and feel as good as it does. In a few months, it will be the 60th anniversary of the release of their self-titled debut. The band’s last studio recording was 2016’s Blue & Lonesome, a well-crafted tribute to the early blues artists that inspired them as young musicians, sending out soulful renditions of songs by Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf and others, that they said was recorded in just three days. With Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and ace drummer Charlie Watts all in their 70s, and Ron Wood coming up behind, there’s no reason they couldn’t have stopped there, closing the band’s recorded history with a shout out to their musical heroes and leave well enough alone. The band’s last album of original material, of course, was A Bigger Bang all the way back in 2005, and I have a vivid memory of seeing the band live on that tour—best seats I ever had for one of their shows, thanks to a friend—but for the life of me, I can’t remember one song off that album. Not one. Can you?

So, why make another record this late in the band’s career, when they can still fill stadiums each summer playing a couple dozen of their greatest hits, and laugh all the way to the bank? The story is that the death of Charlie Watts was a bit of a wake-up call for Mick & Keef, they began to think about their legacy and realized they had another record that they wanted to make. Now, let’s be honest, who thought a rock & roll record by a band of octogenarians was going to be something worthy our attention? This could have gone badly, very badly… but even with the handful of negative reviews I’ve seen, the dominant responses have been a sense of delight, pleasure, and surprise that it turned out a lot better than many of us expected it would.

Of course, the first single “Angry,” set the stage. Alongside the classic guitar chords, the kicking drums of Steve Jordan, the obvious feature is Jagger’s vocal intensity, alongside the big, bold modern rock production values provided by co-producer Alan Watts, who has worked in recent years with other classic rock heavyweights like Ozzy Osbourne, Eddie Vedder, Iggy Pop, alongside pop projects by Post Malone and Maroon 5. So this could have gone all kinds of sideways, but manages to stay true to the Stones’ musical oeuvre, while given the principal players a chance to do once again what they have always done best. Of course, most of us were exposed to the single’s video, and it served to reintroduce the Stones in some familiar ways yet managed to downplay the well-worn wrinkles and wear & tear of men of a certain age. A mix of exploitative blonde T&A display, thanks to “Euphoria” actress Sydney Sweeney posed in a convertible while driving around Hollywood, and AI video of the band drawn from the billboard campaigns of the band’s album triumphs from decades past. It walks up to the line from the Spinal Tap where one person’s “sexy” is the next person’s “sexist,” with the added echoes of the band performing their new song as their younger, more vital AI selves, with a brief look at their current octogenarian visage showing up briefly at the very end. Who still makes big budget music videos, who taunts their fans with reminders of their bad boy image, and then comes out shining on the other side? Well, at this moment, the Stones.

Of the two over-arching criticisms offered thus far, both seem to boil down to basic discomfort with guys their age continuing to do what they’ve been doing for over 6 decades. David Letterman was doing “Stones tour sponsors, Depends adult diaper” jokes 20 years ago. Some complain that some of these new songs echo guitar chords, melodies, and the basic Stones formula too closely, they aren’t as original or angsty or even as raw as they were in their 20’s, 30’s and even 40’s. The other complaint is that some parts of some songs, like the chorus of “Angry,” are all poppy, like they’re aiming at some of the Taylor Swift money. Some don’t like that it’s not Stonesy enough, and others that it’s too much like past Stones songs, not original enough—issues most artists confront on their 5th or 6th album, Hackney Diamonds is the band’s 27th, and they have spent the last two decades playing the “best of” their catalog to stadiums full of live fans. So sure, some things here feel comfortably familiar, and some things a bit fresh, but mostly it’s a collection of smartly written and well-crafted songs.

The fact that Jagger shows up to sing with an unexpected sense of urgency, and that guitarists Richards and Ron Wood manage to deliver the kind of bluesy rock solos that have been the band’s bread & butter, and the fact that even here at this late date, that there’s still plenty of gas in the tank disproves all the standard objections. So, once the issue of the ability of the principals to perform have been resolved, (although clearly not everyone is comfortable hearing an 80-year-old guy spit out a lyric like “We haven’t made love and I wanna know why”), it all comes down to the songs themselves, are they up to par, do they rock, are they relevant, do they connect in a way that makes them a joy to hear again and again? And, to these ears, they’ve managed to deliver on all these fronts.

“Angry” works and likely is more appealing because the antagonist isn’t the angry old man, but is pleading, “why you angry with me? I can’t take anymore,” plus the song rocks on a steady beat from Steve Jordan on drums. Jordan manages to honor the strict discipline to the beat that was Charlie Watts’ signature, while creating space for his bolder grooves. A brief percussion display opens “Get Close,” before those classic Richards’ guitar chords settle into the mid-tempo pop rocker. James King adds a cool urban jazz solo more reflective of Jordan’s underlying rhythms. “Depending On You” follows, leaning into Richards and Jaggers’ sweet pop-song groove, recalling the likes of “Waiting On a Friend.”

Of course, the other prominent aspect here, is all special guest appearances, the most noteworthy being Paul McCartney’s grungy, distorted bassline hook to the song, “Bite My Head Off.” Okay, this is just too much fun. The bass player from The Beatles sitting in with the three remaining members of the Stones, and clearly they are loving it, having as much fun as the nostalgic among us appreciate the end result. Jagger shouts out a word of encouragement to Paul, and suddenly their teenage mutual admiration society has come full circle, and that bass solo rocks, stirring Richards to add his own brief fiery bits. I’m sure some folk are just too cool to find this both moving and fun, but I’ve never been that cool.

If that had been it, all of it, a quick four song EP… well, that would have been enough, I think. But before you know it, they’ve moved on to “Whole Wide World,” and you realize they still got more to say, oh, and this song rocks, too. Again, Jagger and Richards aren’t reinventing the wheel, but this is a punchy, rock anthem with a strong vocal chorus hook, fast, edgy guitars, and a solid rock beat. And then they close out side one with “Dreamy Skies,” a bit of acoustic slide, some country crooning, and bit of harmonica as the band pauses to “take a break from it all.”

Side two kicks off with two in a row recorded with Charlie Watts on the kit before his death. “Mess It Up” slides into classic Stones territory, but then shifts in the chorus toward that time when they were trying on some disco and R&B moves. “Live By the Sword,” pushes Jagger’s aggressive vocal in the direction of a hardcore punk rant and brings out Woods & Richards guitars fighting up against the pounding piano of Elton John, and the one return here of long time Stones’ bassist Bill Wyman. Talk about getting the old band back together. At this point, it occurs to you that you’re 70% through the album, and it’s been pretty solid thus far. The next two are solid as well, another standard mid-tempo rocker, “Driving Me Too Hard,” and the Richards’ sung, “Tell Me Straight.” Then we get to “Sweet Sounds of Heaven,” featuring Stevie Wonder on some Gospel-tinged piano, Lady Gaga doing her best imitation of an angel, and James King’s return on sax, leaning hard into soulful territory, with GaGa going all in on the song’s lengthy reprise.

Then to wrap things up for good, and take things all the way back to their beginnings, Mick and Keith settle in around a microphone for an acoustic blues cover of Muddy Waters’ “Rolling Stone Blues,” where they got the band name. It’s reported that Richards played an old school acoustic like Robert Johnson, and Jagger’s harmonica and vocal delivery display his comfort returning to the sound and songs where the band got its start. As we stated at the outset, there’s no good reason these guys still sound this good, after all these years. But to be clear, no one’s making you choose between the old Stones and this new album, just like most of us figured out back in the late ‘60’s that it was okay to enjoy The Beatles and still listen to The Rolling Stones and vice versa. No one’s asking you to give up Exile On Mainstreet to make room for Hackney Diamonds; we don’t have to take just five albums to the island, everything’s digital, there’s plenty of storage, you don’t have to choose. And, here in 2023, the ever-shrinking remnant of The Rolling Stones, have rebelled against the clock and all manner of agist speculation, and delivered a mature, rock album that’s way better than any of us had any right to expect, a record by rock’s 80-year-old bad boys, that’s more fun than the legal limit.

“Angry” / “Bite My Head Off” / “Get Close”

The Rolling Stones

Blue & Lonesome (2016)

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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