Monday 2 February 2015

The Rolling Stones "Bridges To Babylon" (1997)

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The Rolling Stones "Bridges To Babylon" (1998)

Flip The Switch/Anybody Seen My Baby?/Low Down/Already Over Me/Gunface/You Don't Have To Mean It/Out Of Control/Saint Of Me/Might As Well Get Juiced/Always Suffering/Too Tight/Thief In The Night/How Can I Stop?

"You don't have to mean it - you just got to say it anyway"

We'll start with the inevitable and get it out of the way: no of course a Rolling Stones album from 1998 isn't going to be as revolutionary as one from 1968, yes age has been gradually creeping up with the band ever since the mid-70s and yet again The Rolling Stones have delivered another patchy album rather than an out and out classic. But more than any of the band's post-'World War Three' slanging matches there's a real roar about 'Bridges To Babylon' that proves that for once the band were trying to deliver something a little more than fade away gracefully. I'd never claim that 'Babylon' was an unsung classic of the genre - there are way too many dud songs and dodgy performances to make it more than merely good, perhaps even average - but just as my school reports used to give marks for 'effort and attainment' as two separate things, so the Stones deserve some kudos for trying to turn the clock both forward and back, retaining their old fiery energy for (what seems like) one last time and glancing over their shoulder at what the kids are doing. Like that lion on the front cover, nattily re-drawn with greying hair, The Stones are elder statesmen now and their status as kings of the jungle has come under increasing attack to the point where most music buyers are surprised whenever a new album comes out (well, a new studio album - everyone whose ever been inside a record shop knows that there's way too many live Stones albums out there). Even the title seems like a dig at the headlines that were unfeeling calling the band 'Old Gods, Almost Dead', with its references to Biblical times (so pout of keeping with the late 90s' obsession for ephemera). But even past his prime I wouldn't want to tackle that lion in a fight - there's a scary look in his eye, a mean turn about his mouth and a swish in his tail. This is an animal that knows he can be beaten by someone younger hungrier and smarter - but they're gonna have to fight for it.

It's that energy and desire to tackle the late 90s music scene on its own merits (this is the first time since 'Some Girls' in 1978 where the Stones actually sound like they've bothered to listen to any other music made past 1960) that puts this album apart. If it's mature sophistication you want then 'A Bigger Bang' may be for you and other relatively modern records like 'Voodoo Lounge' and 'Steel Wheels' arguably offer a more fulfilling, consistent listening experience - however to some extent halfway-mature Stones albums are two a-penny with the band trying this technique off and on since Brian Jones was in the band. This album is special, not because it's great or even particularly good but because it sounds so out of kilter with what seemed like an inevitable progression into slower, more thoughtful music for the band. Interestingly the push for this new sound came not from the supposedly with-it Keith Richards (who seems to have not been well for much of the writing of this album and allegedly struggling with his old drug demons again) but the supposedly old-hat Mick Jagger. Last album 'Voodoo Lounge' received something of a mixed reception from fans, who were generally pleased at the retro sound but not the hit-and-miss material. Jagger, vaguely enthusiastic during recording, hated the end mix which he thought ended up making every track sound the same and insisted that the band use different producers for every track they made on their next LP. Whilst that didn't quite happen (Don Was gets a production credit on just about everything), the addition of outsiders who were all relative experts in their own specialist field (and cared less for Stones folklore than some of the band's recent producers) does add a nice bit of spice to the soup. The Dust Brothers, known for their work with Beck, and Danny Saber who'd produced Black Grape were the better known two and certainly took the band to new places across this sixty-two minutes. Dear God, this album even includes some sampling and a rap part at one stage, which is arguably a step too far in trying to be modern but we'll overlook that for now. For just see how far we've come - the idea of The Stones doing anything remotely fashionable rather than just what they always did would have been laughed at anywhere in the 1980s and for most of the 1990s. Above all though, the greatest factor behind this album's relative importance is the fact that the band play in the same room at roughly the same time on all the tracks - amazingly the first real time they'd done this in twenty years (although the sessions for 'Steel Wheels' started that way).However 'Bridges' is not in any way a 'band' record, made live and in one go - not only Mick and Keith but even Ronnie Wood tended to take care if 'their' babies and this record was recorded in bits and pieces across three separate studios with the cast of session musicians plus Charlie and bassist Darryl Jones going where they were needed. At the time there was quite a backlash behind this idea, but after making the two most democratically made albums since the 1960s the band needed to try something new and thankfully kept the good advice of playing together to the basic tracks - and then going their separate ways while the various producers added their overdubs. This results in a record that sounds different with every throw of the dice, 
sometimes dangerously modern, sometimes deliciously retro, always trying to surprise you with what comes next. Effectively this record manages to solve the problem of 'Voodoo Lounge' (which all sounded a bit the same), whilst creating it's own problems (to be honest even '40 Licks', assembled over 40 years in a variety of locations round the world, has more unity than this album). Had every Stones album of the past 30 years been like this one I'd have hated it. But as the only Stones album of the past 30 years to try something new I have a sneaking admiration for it, blossoming into love for the two tracks that work best (the traditional sounding 'Saint Of Me' and the thrillingly different emotional ballad 'Already Over Me').

Fan response to this album when it came out was mixed too, made all the worse when someone pointed out that lead single 'Anybody Seen My Baby?' was ripped off a K D Lang song ('Constant Craving' - hardly the most obvious song to unconsciously hang on to) and sort-of proved that the Stones were going back to being copyists rather than creators. Even the biggest fan of this record admits that it's at least five tracks too long and got messed around too much in post-production. To be honest the low points on this album (the torrid 'How Can I Stop?', the 80s throwback 'Too Tight' and the bonkers 'Anybody Seen My Baby?') are lower than even those on 'Voodoo Lounge' because the band are so way out of their comfort zone this time around they have no idea what works and what doesn't. However, even if the end result isn't perfect, the fact that The Stones  tried something new - and only got half-burnt for it - is success enough for me; not just out of sympathy for the devil but admiration for the fact that they kept on trying when they really didn't need to (did the Stones care if this album sold? Well for their egos yes, but this was hardly the life and death struggle of the mid-60s when every song mattered). This could have been the start of a whole new saga in the Stones' Babylonian empire and I for one was desperate to hear where the Stones might go next after the 'learning' experience of this album - sadly the answer was largely back to doing what they always do on 'A Bigger Bang', although thankfully Mick for one seems to have learnt how good he sounds when singing from his heart rather than on behalf of his bank balance.

Charlie Watts especially is on incredible form across this record, which begins with the solo sound of his normal drumming and ends with a whallop on an African-style drum). Mixed far too loud on every Stoned album from 'Emotional Rescue' on, here he sounds just right, getting the album off to a flying start with the pounding on opener 'Flip The Switch' that drummers a third of his age would struggle to keep up with and not really letting up until the two Keith ballads at the end. There's a saying amongst Stones fans that the band are only ever as good on a certain night as Charlie is and that most of their sparkle at any one particular time comes from him. I can't say I'd agree with that most of the time but there was definitely something extra in Charlie's performances on this album and tour (at the age of 56) as if he'd suddenly stopped waiting for a jazz career to come along and released that this band of misfits he'd agreed to help out 45 years earlier were actually worth something. The bad news is that Keith and Ronnie have less to do on this album than some of the guest musicians (including a welcome return to the AAA listings for backing singer Blondie Chaplin, a Beach Boy between 1972 and 1974). This time around Keith gets his two of his three vocals together, at the end of the album, which means he barely appears until track twelve (he doesn't even sound like himself on reggae song 'You Don't Have To Mean It') and of all the band's albums this is the one that has least room for guitars and less rock and roll riffs than usual (sounding not so much Chuck Berry as Katy Perry, for once). That's a shame as while the electronic overdubs are a nice attempt at something new this once, they should be here alongside rather than because of the sound that makes the Stones special. Some fans, realising the way the wind was blowing as quickly as the second song, never did get to the end of the album in protest anyway (Keith might also want to have words with Kink Dave Davies, who spent years having his songs relegated to the end of band LPs so as not to 'disrupt' his brother's vision, much to his annoyance; to be fair at least Dave tried to keep an eye on what brother Ray was up to - Keith's in his own world oblivious to what Mick's been up to with his vocal contributions slow, lazy and sharing nothing with then-modern music at all). 'Thief In The Night' is a special song indeed - but the other two suggest Keith has gone to sleep just when his writing partner has never been more awake to the world around him.

By and large though energy, even aggression is the mood of this album. The record starts with a switch literally being flipped, the band breaking out of hibernation and going on tour, building up to a peak of adrenalin as they get themselves in the mood to face the world again. 'Flip The Switch' beats even 'Sad Sad Sad' as the definitive modern-day Stones rocker, dropping the swamp-rock slower sound of the past for pure unadulterated 'Some Girls' style aggression, full of references to lyrical injections and a heap o' bones. 'Low Down' demands the truth about the news in the Stones' most politically aware song since 'Street Fighting Man' (even if it does end up simply a list of pages of the newspaper). 'Already Over Me' finds Jagger being dumped, with Charlie delivering the killer blow with a drum roll that sounds like a gunshot. 'Gunface' is the band back to their controversial past, telling the tale of a robbery in the first person, only slowly pulling away the song's bouncy veneer to reveal the troubled, broken-hearted desperate teenager at its core (of all the modern songs on the album this one is the most modern - a whole style of writing that didn't really kick in until the 1980s with mass murderers as much a victim as the people they shoot; by and large the sixties generation abhor all violence and can't justify any of it for any reason - unlike their offspring who view the world as less black and white than that). 'Out Of Control' has Jagger (or more likely Richards' given the subject matter) narrator meeting with a load of adolescent homeless youths and identifying with their need to get 'out of control', still as 'angry, vein and charming' as he was at their age. The nasty sounding 'Might As Well Get Juiced' re-iterates the idea that booze is the only way out on a set of lyrics that wouldn't have sounded out of place on a 60s Stone song. Taken together with the heavy thud of almost every single performance on this album (even the ballads) and 'Babylon' is far from the sort of growing older laidback albums other AAA bands were recording at this same time (see Paul McCartney's flaming awful 'Flaming Pie' of 1997, Oasis' over-busy 'Be Here Now' from the same year and  CSNY's timid 'Looking Forward' from 1999 which we reviewed last week).

There's also a loose theme of death and decay, natural to all AAA bands who lasted this long - although it's interesting to note that Jagger's lyrics are more concerned with a black and white idea of heaven and hell than philosophical debate over the nature of life. 'Saint Of Me' is the obvious song, a rebellious Jagger shrugging his shoulders and claiming that it's too late for the leopard to change his spots now - although once again he proves to be the thinking man's counter-culturalist who clearly paid attention in Bible class with his long list of names. He sounds less than fussed about being a 'sinner, left to die out in the cold', but he does sound genuinely moved when seeing angels crying on his behalf (perhaps one of them was angelic Brian Jones? Erm, perhaps not!) However it's there in other songs too this theme: 'Flip The Switch' has the opposite tack though, Jagger's carcass which everyone has presumed 'is going to feed the worms' won't happen because he's 'working for the other firm' ie God. 'Low Down' recalls 'Exile's voodoo song about Jesus 'I Just Wanna See His Face', where blind faith is worth less than knowledge and proof. Then again half the other songs have the opposite theme, of the various narrators finding all the faith and hope they need in a bottle or possibly drugs, full of lyrics about there being nothing to live for and no spiritual side to life whatsoever, so perhaps it's just something of a false dawn (or perhaps The Glimmer Twins had Songs Of Praise on in the background during their writing sessions?!)

Overall, then, the result is another lengthy but mixed modern-day Rolling Stones album, but for the opposite for the usual reasons why the last eight or so studio Stones albums haven't quite cut it. This time the band are nicely inventive, musically curious and offer so much more than the usual tired repeats of their usual sound. At times The Stones could pass for a band at the start of their career, not somewhere near the end (given the increasing gap between albums more than a few fans figured 'this could be the last time...' when this set came out which inevitably changes how we thought of this record then and now that we know there's at least 'A Bigger Bang' to come afterwards - but then we've been saying that, off and on, since the 1980s). While the producers don't always get things right (what the hell did they do to 'You Don't Have To Mean It?', which was on course to the best of the Stones' many flimsy goes at reggae until the effects kick in!) they do at least shake things up a bit, allowing Charlie and Mick in particular room to breathe at long last. Jagger's written many a better lyric over the years but hasn't written this many good 'uns at the same time for quite a while ('Steel Wheels' is about the closest competitor in our imaginary 'best Stones lyrics since 1978' competition). Even when a song doesn't quite cut it there's often a decent recording of it that sparkles, mainly down to the excellent decision to put Charlie back centre-stage once again. Also because this sounds less like a 'normal' Rolling Stones album the long list of guest parts actually makes sense, with harmonica players, backing singers and a long lost of keyboard players adding colour to an already technicolour sequence of backing tracks, which are a huge relief after the last two record's monochrome (she's a rainbow, this album, despite the very grey cover). So why isn't this album heralded as a late classic?
The sad fact is that by embracing the new the Stones so often lose touch with what made their sound special and distinctive. We've touched on the relative lack of guitar parts on this album but somehow it's more than that - had Charlie and the closing duo of songs been taken off for whatever reason this would just sound like another Mick Jagger solo album. There's not as much interplay here as I'd like even if, thankfully, the band do generally all play on every song (only Mick goes missing on a couple of Keith's tracks). While 'Already Over Me' is a cracking song and easily the best thing here, it's still not quite up to the timelessness of 'Out Of Tears' from 'Voodoo' and sounds a little like the band are trying too hard, in comparison with the casual greatness that marks out most great Stones songs from the past. While personally I like the album cover (not many fans do) even I'm confused as to the packing aside, with demolished towers of Babels, desert plains and hard-to-read fonts (had the band followed this lead - the gradual decay of the 60s dream into a harsh modern life full of guns and sadness, a mirror of civilisation's devolution from centuries before - instead of relegating this to the tracks 'Gunface' and 'Lowdown' - then 'Bridges' might have been first-class. And why 'Bridges' anyway? Presumably the band were name-checking their inventive life device which allowed a 'bridge' to stretch out from the stage so the band could play specially just for the back row for a couple of songs. But if so then why not put the lion on it instead of leaving him in the desert?! All too often this album is going in too many different places at once - the sound will be grim and gritty while the lyrics ponder the universe, or alternately that a slow flowing ballad will be given a set of words that would be better suited to a hip hop song. Never before, even in the bad old days of the mid-1980s, had Mick and Keith seemed so far apart and weirdly enough that friction detracts from the music rather than adds anything as before. 'Babylon' is one of those albums that seems to have started with good intentions but needed longer at the design stage to sound truly focussed and groundbreaking. By comparison at least 'Voodoo Lounge' and 'A Bigger Bang' are much easier on the ear, however bland - at times 'Bridges To Babylon' sounds like a jukebox on random that's been dropped into the middle of a pinball machine.

For all that though, I like this album. Like a thief in the night, it gets under your skin with enough playings - even the bad stuff, which is more than I can say for most of the bland records either side of it. Reviewers - including me in private - had been moaning for twenty years that The Stones were standing still and their reputation was being hurt with every new album that came out - not because they were bad (even if bits of them were) but because fans essentially learnt nothing new about the band if they bought it (which is why so many of them stopped bothering). 'Babylon' is a worthy reminder that the Stones still have a lot to say that's worth saying, even if some of the messages get garbled and lost in production difficulties and disjointed songwriting. At its best ('Already Over Me' 'Saint Of Ne' 'Lowdown' 'Flip The Switch') this album really comes together and sounds unlike nothing else in the Stones' back catalogue - no mean achievement given how much ground this band covered in their first five years together alone. The performances are either the best in years - or the worst, depending on whether the band are playing with each other or against each other. This album wasn't released in the 1960s, when styles came and went every week, but in a climate where surviving was enough and evolving was a bonus. On that level alone 'Babylon' is a step in the right direction, offering a new dimension to an old sound that's not always as incongruous as reviewers supposed. All too often, though, this record's mistakes mean it's one step forward and two or three back for the band and while there's more to recommend than usual there's more to avoid as well. In retrospect maybe the idea of a crumbling institution was more apt than I supposed...

'Flip The Switch' may have nowhere to go after it's run through to the end of the first chorus but until then the opening minute of this song is the best Stones rocker in years. Everybody sounds as if they're doing this for real, not because they think it's what they ought to be doing and Charlie's thudding opening attack may well be the single best recorded drum track in Stones history - brittle, dry, a howl of desperation and adrenalin rolled into one. The so Stonesy guitar weaving is easily the best example on this album (it's almost the only example) and Mick's tortured vocal makes him sound as if he's singing about the end of the world, not just preparing for another world tour. If this is a switch flipped, maybe the Stones should have left it on. Inevitably a song all about adrenalin tires out quickly, the same problem shared by parts of the 'Some Girls' album, and this song tires quicker than most getting distinctly irritating by the time the band reach the 'Chill me, freeze me, to the blood!' chorus for a second straight time. The lyrics are more perfunctory than the performance and melody but even they have some flashes of wit and wisdom: 'Got my money, ticket all that shit - I even got a little shaving kit!' slurs Mick as the band sound like they wait at the airport impatiently for him, the motor running. He even refers to the band's advances years and wondering how long they can go on - in contrast to the not-that-enthusiastic Jagger of the mid 80s by taunting that he's ready for anything with the line 'what would it take to bury me?' and joyously declaring 'I can't wait to see!' The Stones have hit the ground running with a song that even ends brilliantly, the track not fading or declining so much as running out of juice mid-leap, leaving guest bassist Joe Safarli's playing hovering in mid-air, the touring Stones perhaps ready to be resurrected the next time around. The single best opening to a Stones album since 'Exile On Main Street'.

'Anybody Seen My Baby?' was the song the Stones had staked a lot on. The first single from the album and the one getting most of the press attention about how 'modern' the band sounded, they clearly spent a lot of time and energy on it, with a production by The Dust Brothers that makes Mick sound more like a rapper than the unbilled rapper who actually gets going near the end ('*something unintelligible*...Everybody...gonna rock...get like this!') Alas all that attention seems to have been turned on the wrong song: the whole K D Lang saga was unfortunate, turning the Stones in one stroke from pioneers regaining their crown to wannabes who were never at the head of any musical pack anyway and their studio reputation has never quite recovered since (for the record, the similarities between this and K D Lang's single 'Constant Craving' are obvious once you know it but easy to miss, basically using the same 'doo-dee-doo-dee' chorus but going somewhere very different in the verses). However even without that this is a rather lazy song by Stones standards, exciting only in artificial sense with a backing track that's simply trying too hard to sound tough and trendy. Only Mick sounds at home in this environment, dropping his vocal to a seductive whisper, but the rest of the band's usual sound becomes very out of place, especially with Keith and Ronnie's traditional harmonies drowned out by a rather anonymous choir. 'Anybody seen the Stones?' is more like it really, with only a gnarled three-note guitar lick recognisably Stones-like. Had this been by a new band the results might well have been better received: it's good to hear Mick back to his storytelling, his lonely narrator gradually growing more and more uncomfortable as he keeps staring at a ticking clock and realising he's just been dumped. Perhaps the real invention of this song is that, some thirty years after 'Under Your Thumb' and 'Yesterday's Papers', Mick is a passive narrator here, doing nothing about the situation except get more and more upset. There's an interesting twist at the end too, Mick declaring 'was she just in my imagination?' and hinting either a) that instead of a long-standing relationship this is a couple that have only just met and barely know each other, with Jagger getting typically carried away or b) that he's just hallucinated the whole experience (what with the references to 'lethal injections' on 'Flip The Switch' this is rather a hazy, druggy start to the album and more proof that Keith may have been more out of it than he let on). The end result is largely the opposite to the strengths and weaknesses of the rest of the album: it's a promising song that expands the Stones' songwriting chops (plagiarised chorus melody aside) before throwing it all away with a rather poor modern arrangement.

'Low Down' is perhaps the most traditional sounding Stones song on the album and the band sound as if they know exactly what they're doing, in comparison to some of the other recordings. Keith's guitar is nice and loud (Ronnie is rather oddly mixed in the background mind you, with these parts far from equal) and Mick simply purrs his vocal. The lyrics are promising without ever quite delivering, demanding the 'truth' from the world in general and newspapers in particular in a very Lennon type way (see 'Gimme Some Truth' from John's 'Imagine' album, where this song could easily have been the middle eight). It's nice to see the Stones confronting the outside world after pretty much ignoring it since tackling murder and massacre on the 'Undercover' album (although even 'Too Much Blood', the biggest example of this, was written after the Stones ever so nearly got caught up in a similar situation themselves). However this song really doesn't say much: it demands the truth but then wastes the opportunity to tell it by snarling 'don't give me the sports political news...don't give me the gossip...don't read me the horoscope babe...', as if delaying the moment when the narrator has to confront the truth himself. There's a curious middle eight too which tries to be clever but rather falls flat: 'The headlines are screaming, they change everyday, as long as I ain't in 'em, I'm happy that way!' - a clever line out of context but after two tense minutes demanding the truth at all costs it represents an uncomfortable u-turn, turning a tense and gritty rocker into just another silly self-referencing Stones song. This track deserves better given the strength of that opening verse where Keith's angry calm guitar riff curls upwards with a question mark and basically throws the interrogation spotlight on Mick's vocal. Listen out for the first 'wooh wooh's on a Stones song since 'Sympathy For The Devil', which are ever so nearly as blood-curdling!

So far we've had three passable-to-great Stones songs: blimey, that's better going than 'Voodoo Lounge' already! Next up though is the classics of the album and indeed one of the two truly essential songs of the past thirty years of Stones. 'Already Over Me' is a stunner, one of those timeless Jagger/Richards ballads that could have been written in any period and far removed from the gimmicks of much of the album. This song is clearly one of Mick's, pointing the way forward to his split with wife Bianca so honestly revealed on the next record 'A Bigger Bang' (Jagger had their 1990 marriage annulled in 1999, though their split wasn't common knowledge when this album came out). It sounds heartfelt, not affected, for once saving the song's best moment until we're ready for it, with a killer chorus where Jagger drops his weak vulnerable pose to plead 'Are you already over me? Are you already sick of me?' before sadly sighing 'what a fool I've been'. As early as the first verse, sadly recalling how they met, Jagger has already given in, sorrowfully adding that 'I thought you'd get the best of me'.  There's no anger here or surprise and for all his talk about being hurt Jagger's narrator is oddly accepting, taking all the blame without a word (again see 'Yesterday's Papers' for what a sea-change this is; it's worth adding that it's subject matter Chrissie Shrimpton did nothing wrong except aligning herself too strongly with the fashions of 1965!) Once again it's a shock to hear out usually tough and macho hero sounding genuinely hurt and the lyrics 'when you laughed, I just cried' sound like they're taken from truth not just a clever line (Jagger comes up with a similar phrase on the next album's almost-as-intense 'Laugh, I Nearly Died' from the next LP). The Stones  could easily have messed it up the way with so many other promising emotionally resonant songs ('Anybody Seen My Baby?' being the latest in a long line), but they don't: the song grows in stature bit by bit, peeling off a layer of posturing with each verse as the situation gets worse and worse and adding more variety into this one song than most of the entire 'Voodoo Lounge' album. The middle eight is the icing on a juicy fat cake, the song toppling headlong into a minor key of tragedy and tension as Mick declares 'I'm kneeling in a corner, praying to your shrine', followed by a lovely fat Keith Richards solo that suggests his partner fully understand his pain. When the Stones get things right - drop their play-acting, stop trying to sound like everyone expects them to sound like even though they rarely ever did in their heyday and stop trying period - they can still be as magical as any other band from any period. Far from revealing him as a 'fool', the brilliance of 'Already Over Me' reveals Jagger as a songwriting and vocal genius. However tough this song was to write and sing it was well worth it. More please.

'Gunface' is impressive too, but less listenable. Jagger is strangely believable as the confused teenage wreck who persuades the seller - and us - that he's buying a gun because he wants to hold on to something 'shiny'. However this song too unravels slowly, verse by verse, the tough little narrator acknowledging that since his girlfriend left him for another man he's not thinking straight. Figuring that his choices are having a break down ('and I ain't gonna cry!') or finding an outlet for his 'burning rage' that will prove what a man he is, he holds up a bank at gunpoint. Of course this is wrong and the narrator kinda knows it too, telling the cashier through his tears that 'you'll pay for her crime', but somehow Jagger makes his character sympathetic as well as mad, talking us through how he 'taught her everything' and balancing images of him squeezing the gun's trigger with the antics she's getting up to in bed. Danny Saver is the guest producer on this track and does the best job of updating the Stones' sound, with their usual bouncy zest opening the track on a Chuck Berry-style Richards riff and then burying it all underneath a torrent of modern effects. Ronnie gets in his best solo on the record, a gonzo guitar part near the end that deserves to run longer, while both Mick and Charlie pass convincingly for musicians half their age. The result is, like most modern music to old ears (and mine are included here: this isn't a matter of age but what songwriting qualities you get used to), bordering on unlistenable: sharp, aggressive, unfocussed and all too convincing as one long noise that rarely changes or backs down from the edge of the precipice it keeps threatening to leap from. However, as a one-off, that's part of this song's charm, the Stones successfully stepping with the times and sounding like they actually understand them rather than desperately copying them. Another strong side on what in the old vinyl days would have been an excellent first side.

Alas from here on in the album starts to get 'out of control' to quote one of the songs. Keith's first vocal 'You Don't Have To Mean It' seems almost stubbornly, wilfully old fashioned, the sort of cod reggae he's been writing off and on since the mid-70s. Thankfully this piece is one up from the likes of 'Cherry Baby' and is at least listenable with a nice horn part and a delightfully mellow-if-creaky Richards vocal. However the trouble I have with most reggae songs - especially those made by slightly confused Westerners - is that they tend to say the same thing and rarely change throughout. This is another lazy clichéd love song that's only interesting for Richards borrowing from his partner's marital problems and claiming that 'you don't have to mean it - as long as you say that you love me'. There's a fun middle eight of 'dripping from your lips' that for a moment sounds as if we're going somewhere else but the moment passes and for the first time on the album you have a song that you can pretty much suck dry on the first listening, woefully out of step with the rest of the album and out of touch with the times. Keith, lick Mick, does sound like he means it - but it's the same thing he's meant since about 1976 and doesn't really add to your understanding of the Stones or the genre.
'Out Of Control' is a lesser attempt to capture the spirit of 'Anybody Seen My Baby?', with a slow purr of a verse and a thudding shout in the chorus. This time around the band do the sensible thing and delay the switch between the two to the point where you think the song has nothing left (a full 1:20), suddenly circling back to the starting point and teasing the listener by making the chorus that little bit longer each time they return to it before finally hitting full throttle full time. On some of the earlier, Stones albums this might have been enough but this song takes so long to get going few people give it that long - which is a shame, especially when Keith's guitar and Mick's nicely bluesy harmonica end up having a little battle during the solo. The lyrics too have a little extra something about them, Mick (or are these Keiths' words for once? The song feels more like his work somehow) finding himself at home amongst the society dropouts and drunks half his age. He nods to us that there isn't much charming, like them once upon a time 'I was angry, I was vain, I was charming, I was lucky', sweetly adding the second time these lines come up 'tell me - how have I changed?!' Alas this is the one album song on 'Babylon' that leaves the listener having to do most of the work and the effort simply isn't worth it with so many excellent immediate songs on the CD.

'Saint Of Me', though, is superb, a gritty rocker with gospel overtones perfectly in keeping with the band's mid-70s catalogue (there's even a fine farewell to that period's most prolific guest star Billy Preston, who plays the sweet organ part). Jagger has clearly done his homework, telling us about all the great figures who sacrificed themselves to Christianity including Saint Paul, Augustine and John The Baptist, three figures whose characters were changed completely after being hit by Jesus' 'blinding light'. However, just as in the days of old, Jagger assumes that his time is too late for change, denying the idea that anyone will 'make a saint of me' and adding a fan-friendly 'oh yeah woah yeah' chorus that in concert made a fine sequel to Sympathy For The Devil's 'wooh wooh's. If the timing had been slightly later I'd assume that Jagger was laughing at his knighthood and sudden 'acceptance' by the social world (perhaps with Keith - who was appalled at his partner picking up a medal from an establishment that once tried to put them both away for a very long time - suggesting the damning sting that he isn't really one of 'them'). However that came in 2002, five years later so chances are Mick was simply singing about the Stones' status in the late 1990s as revered statesmen, this album's decision to reflect it's times for once proving that the band could still be as dark and edgy as they once were. The result is a song that sounds as if started off as gentle Stones pastiche, a kind of Frankenstein of all their different periods (the chorus is pure 60s - especially Keith's supporting harmony, the gospel overtones 70s and the thudding drums and full-on backing singer parts more 80s) but somewhere along the line turned into a real live anthem, the band refusing to grow 'respectable' and denying that they're going to go the ways of their peers and grow 'soft'. There's another fine middle eight on an album impressively full of them too, Mick having second thoughts when he sees an angel trying to save his soul shedding a tear, but rebel to the end Jagger refuses to be categorised and fall into the traps of others. The result is another fab song, less deep than some on the album perhaps but with all the right ideas in all the right places.

From the traditional to the modern in one jump, with 'Might As Well Get Juiced' the most out-there song on the album. Keith barely plays on a song he's professed to hate and which features every electronic trick in the book to make the Stones sound less like themselves than ever. Jagger does rather well at sounding drunk on a song that's sung with a slowed slur while all hell breaks loose behind - like the mother of all production hangovers. The lyrics are curious: we know this band were always party animals at heart but even in their youth they never wrote a song quite this in awe of liquor. Like Oasis' rather better written 'Cigarettes and Alcohol' from three years earlier, this song basically claims that there's no point to living anyway - so why not let everybody everywhere get hammered all the time? Well, the natural response is because every song would sound like this one, rather than a disciplined classics like 'Saint Of Me' or 'Already Over Me', but even so I'm surprised there wasn't more love for this song at the time - the most party-friendly Stones song since 'Rocks Off'. There's some more harmonica playing from Mick, too, but the results are rather less convincing than last time and Ronnie's slide guitar doesn't make much of an impact either. Perhaps you need to be drunk to get the most out of this song, because it doesn't do a lot for me sober, lacking the wit and wisdom of similar drinking anthems by the likes of Ray Davies and Alan Hull.

'Always Suffering' is another of the songs on this album that always gets overlooked compared to the louder songs around it. The one song here that resembles the laidback retro approach of 'Voodoo Lounge', it always sounds prettier out of context than it does within it, a nice surprise when heard at random and a bit bland when heard as part of the album. A kind of sequel to 'Blinded By Rainbows', this song has a similar melody but an opposite set of lyrics that claim we're always hurting so much that we miss the greatness of the world around us. Jagger sounds as if he's singing about Bianca again here, claiming that against all the odds and unlike most of their friends and peers they stayed together and hoping for a second chance that in his heart of hearts he knows he won't ever get. Jagger wonders what all that suffering was for if they were going to break up anyway, the middle eight movingly having him wave goodbye to the 'haunting sound of a fading train', but he answers his own question with memories of how happy they sometimes were. The verses, then, are nice but the chorus is 'wrong' or at least unbalanced: there's a change to the major key (generally the 'positive' one writers use when they want to sound happy) for the most hopeless lines 'we're already suffering, already lost' and the many times this is repeated puts the emphasis on the wrong place: Jagger's trying to get back together again, not remind her that they've split up. Still, even if this song is far from perfect and well out of sorts set against the two noisiest tracks on the record, this is another pretty song that's well above average and a song you'll return to long after the rest of the record has got boring.

'Too Tight' sounds like the 1980s Stones, with a formerly close relationship (presumably Mick and Bianca again, although it could just as easily be Mick and Keith) ending up being suffocating, not that far removed musically or lyrically from 'Too Tough'. The difference is the aggression with which the song is played, with guitar weaving back for only the second time properly on this album and another cracking adrenalin-fuelled Watts drum part. Alas, like many an 80s recording, there's no real song to go with the performance - just an idea that lasts a verse tops. There's a fun lyric that ends up a discussion of knots ('untie those sheep shanks honey!') and another nice middle eight where Jagger refuses to be taken in by charm ('I've seen it all a thousand times, I sung the song, I wrote the fucking book!') However there's not much going on in this, the most un-memorable song on the album which doesn't really stand out in anyway. On past Stones albums, especially last album 'Voodoo Lounge' that would have been enough - but 'Babylon' has bigger fish to fry than one-note songs that sounds vaguely like something the band have already written; in many respects it's a shame that the Stones have spent so much of the CD-age trying to fill the extra running time instead of sticking to their more comfortable upper end of 45-50 minutes. It's also a rather bland way to say goodbye to Mick's sterling contributions to the album, with 'Bridges' easily his best performance since 'Tattoo You' (and as we love pointing out, that's really an outtakes compilation album - his last best album from an all-in-one-go point of view is surely 'Some Girls' 21 years before this).

Keith's highlight on the album is the extraordinary 'Thief In The Night'. Like many a modern Keith vocal, this one's a ballad, but instead of a dull love song or reggae lilt this song is genuinely inventive, returning to the hazy soft-shoe shuffle of the early part of the record (this song should have been indexed to run after 'Anybody Seen My Baby?' as the two share a similarly druggy haze). Producer Pierre Du Beauport gets a co-write despite there being less production on this song than most, although there are several great arrangement ideas that are worthy of praise, from the massive bank of backing singers (who make far more sense here than on most Stones recordings, recalling the icy cold wordless chanting of Holst's 'Neptune', which famously ended with the singers leaving the stage bit by bit and still singing until they reached the car park) to Charlie getting his brushes out. The lyrics are less interesting, not really getting past the idea of a lover getting the brush-off  (ha ha - so that's why Charlie has his brushes out, I get it now!) but are nicely surreal, unusual for the Stones in their fragmented colours and styles (sample lyric: 'I know the feeling, you just sit there waiting in the dark, yeah how his dog can bark, like a thief in the night!') Worryingly, though, Keith is surely writing about his returning drug habit here, greeting his old poison like an old friend (perhaps literally if it's an old drug dealer), surreptitiously meeting at night like a pair of lovers having an affair ('You'll get a message if you see me at your window pane'). After all, what better metaphor for something out of your control that you know is wrong than a thief kidnapping you slowly, bit by bit, 'like a thief in the night' and Keith even adds the line 'I found out where he keeps you - I've even been inside', perhaps referencing the famous drug bust of 1967. If so then it's sad to hear the way Keith ends the song ('Nothing I can do about it - it's the power of it!'), far removed from the last time he wrote about his habit (the self-assured going-to-stop-now-while-I-can 'Before They Make Me Run'). The result is a chilling, moving song, sung with much emotion by a cracked Richards voice (by far his best on the album, suggesting he has more emotional investment in it than his two others on this album) and some nice production touches. The song even sounds like a muddy mono record, as if returning to an old habit the narrator thought he'd kicked into touch, baby.

The record should really have ended there, but as the title suggests 'How Can I Stop?' just keeps the songs a-coming. A final sleepy Richards ballad, in truth this one is a bit dreary with its slow tempo, non-existent melody and anonymous 'wooo-aaaah' backing vocals that sounds more like The Swingle Singers than rock and roll. A typical love song for wife Patti, Richards has the opposite problem to Jagger: this is the point about now, 17 years into their marriage when things usually go wrong and he gets a 'breather' and a new excitement in his life. But this time he's happy to report that he's never been happier, adding 'how can I stop once I start?' Alas, while that's a sweet idea, by the very nature of its lyrics this paean to stability  has to repeat itself endlessly and sound like every other Keith Richards romantic ballad along the way. A nicer song to write and play on than to listen to, you'd suspect and rather a sorry ending to an album that's done so much to extend and elaborate on the Stones' sound.

Still, even half an album that's trying is pretty good going - far better than any fan reasonably expected before 'Babylon' came out anyway. Fans have disagreed about this album like no other since 'Goat's Head Soup' - some love the modern songs, others the retro throwbacks to the past, with the only thing everyone seems to be agreed on being that this album is at best only halfway to being a classic. Even so, whichever half of the album you rate, you have to give albums marks for effort as well as attainment sometimes and 'Bridges To Babylon' is at least trying to do something different to normal, even if half of the new things it tries inevitably fall apart (the Stones have always had this problem - 'Satanic Majesties' is half a revolutionary forward thinking album full of pioneering songs and half a mess made up of unfocussed jams). Again we return to that lion on the cover: it's status as king of the jungle is under attack and people aren't as scared by an old lion with no teeth as a young one in its prime. But the lion can still fight and seems to have a rather nice pair of false fangs; this is the Stones prepared for a battle with the youngsters of the day which they admit they might still lose - but it's a far more dignified sight than seeing them lie down and have their tummy tickled as per the comparatively cuddly 'Voodoo Lounge'. Let's hope it's not too long before that switch gets flipped again and the Stones can get back to at least half-deserving their status as the greatest rock and roll band in the world (after The Who anyway...)

A Now Complete List Of Rolling Stones and Related Articles To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:

'No 2' (1965)

'Out Of Our Heads' (1965)

‘Aftermath’ (1966)

'Between The Buttons' (1967)

'Their Satanic Majesties Request' (1967)

'Beggar's Banquet' (1968)

‘Let It Bleed’ (1969)

'Sticky Fingers' (1971)

'Exile On Main Street'(1972)

'Goat's Head Soup' (1973)

'It's Only Rock 'n' Roll' (1974)

'Black and Blue' (1976)

'Some Girls' (1978)

'Emotional Rescue' (1980)

'Undercover' (1983)

'Dirty Work' (1986)

'Steel Wheels' (1989)

‘Voodoo Lounge’ (1994)

'Bridges To Babylon' (1998)

'A Bigger Bang' (2005)

Ronnie Wood and Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings Solo

Rolling Stones: Unreleased Recordings

Surviving TV Clips and Music Videos

Non-Album Recordings Part One 1962-1969

Non-Album Recordings Part Two 1970-2014

Live/Solo/Compilations Part One 1963-1974 

Live/Solo/Compilations Part Two 1975-1988