Monday 18 January 2016

The Rolling Stones "A Bigger Bang" (2005)

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The Rolling Stones "A Bigger Bang" (2005)

Rough Justice/Let Me Down Slow/It Won't Take Long/Rain Fall Down/Streets Of Love/Back Of My Hand/She Saw Me Coming/Biggest Mistake/This Place Is Empty/Oh No Not You Again/Dangerous Beauty/Laugh I Nearly Died/Sweet Neo Con/Look What The Cat Dragged In/Driving Too Fast/Infamy

There's a theory that the big bang happened in our future and that we're all leading up to it now, our lives in reverse. That might explain why 'A Bigger Bang' sounds more like something a band do at the beginning of their careers rather than - with all respect for how much music this band has left to give, maybe one day - the end. Named by Keith after being instructed to come up with a tour name that had a 'bigger bang' about it and then being encouraged to keep it for the record by Virgin, it's an immediate record high on energy big on pop songs and with a couple of classic deep songs peeking through the glitz and glamour - the sorts of thing we'd be praising new bands for showing 'promise' on. The run up to this album was plagued by health scares and worries that the Stones would never sound the same again, sliding too gracefully into middle age - during the lengthy making of it Charlie beat off throat cancer, Ronnie was in and out of rehab and Keith is but a few months away from falling out of a 30 foot palmtree - but against it all this is the youngest, most vibrant and downright noisy record the Stones have made since their first and second albums. The record was encouragingly well received ('Best album since Exile on Main Street even though we said that last time - and the time before that!') and is certainly the catchiest poppiest Stones album in a long time, but it also happens to be the longest Stones album since 'Exile On Main Street' and doesn't quite have enough material here to sustain a full 65 minutes (a mere two shorter than 'Exile'). It's a record of sixteen pop singles (well, twelve pop singles and their B-sides), something many bands do in their early career but which the Stones have never really done before. This is an album that's always after a bigger bang than the track before, with the result that there's no subtlety here, no real change in flow and little depth compared to 'Steel Wheels' 'Voodoo Lounge' or 'Bridges To Babylon', even though on first listen this album sounds better than all of them. The musical equivalent of viagra or botox, 'A Bigger Bang' makes the Stones sound young again, though it comes at a price.

Charlie, especially, seems to have a point to prove and plays with a ferocity and speed he's never possessed before, a shocked Mick and Keith telling reporters that their drummer - traditionally the last part of the sound to be added to the arrangements - was there first every session, eager and enthusiastic like never before. Though Ya Yas has the famous line, it's this album that's his towering achievement with the band, the one where Charlie's good tonight not just on one track but every track, turning songs that might have sounded decidedly boring and average into pulsating 'groove' songs where the rhythm dominates for the first time since 'Black and Blue' (with rather better songs pasted over the top this time). A good half of the album starts with Charlie setting the tone, something you sense has been lacking since the 1970s when Watts decided that the Stones was the best way of paying for his jazz career on the side and he looked like he wanted this all to be over with as soon as possible. Nobody but nobody listening to this record who didn't know the Stones would have guessed he was 64 when it was released: Charlie sounds young, hungry and full of energy - the complete opposite of how he behaved in the band's early days when he seemed like the older, calmer figure (even though Bill was two years his senior). 'A Bigger Bang', it seems, defies the effects of time and gravity, opening with four straight rock songs in a row for the only time bar 'Steel Wheels' and in total eleven of these sixteen songs play hard and fast. None of it, barring the blues of 'Back Of My Hand', falls into that curiously Stonesy 'swamp rock' either - there's nothing blurry or slow-dressed-up-to-sound-fast about this album: everything really is that fast, with an average tempo somewhere around twice the pulse of the average Stones album and perhaps four times the speed of 'Exile On Main Street', the record everyone says is their 'rock' album. The Stones should have sounded like this years ago, with 'A Bigger Bang' the closest thing to a sequel to the punk energy rush of 'Some Girls' in twenty-seven years and eight studio albums. Even Keith only gets one slow ballad cameo, not two as per usual. Almost everything here could have been released as a catchy single (the band missed a trick by not doing that with the catchiest song, 'Oh No Not You Again!' but perhaps they were afraid of sarcastic reviewers like me...) - there were in fact four taken off this album, for the first time since 'Some Girls', almost of it uptempo and catchy. This is, at long last, pure rock and roll from the world's self-proclaimed greatest rock and roll band and I have to say I like it.

Unfortunately where this album loses out is the sense of unfolding drama and emotional weight of the last run of albums ('Steel Wheels' 'Voodoo Lounge' and 'Bridges To Babylon', albums which by contrast sounded a little bland and safe but which revealed new depth and detail the more you got to know them. While the Stones of 'A Bigger Bang' can't wait to tell us how youthful and vigorous the band now sound, it's rather a shame that the maturer and adult sounds the Stones had grown into on 'Slipping Away' 'Out Of Tears' and 'Already Over Me' is largely missing. There's little sense here of a band having grown into themselves or into their sound, which is what makes that title so apt: this is a re-set button to take the band back to what everyone who hadn't bought a Stones record in forty odd years would have expected them to sound, even though the Stones never really ever sounded like this - energetic and wild-yet-disciplined. Somewhere deep in this album's DNA seems to be the shock of the band actually bothering to hear their old original recordings for the first time in aeons, possibly for the '40 Licks' compilation set released three years earlier or the 'deluxe' album re-issues already been worked on, and realising that everyone's idea of the Stones' sound was actually a myth so the band had to record one album in that style just to set the record straight. The trouble is the Stones have spent most of the years since they dropped psychedelia and R and B from their act covering the fact thaty they couldn't play as fast and hard as their rivals up. The run of Jimmy Miller LPs between 1968-1973 invented a whole new sound of debauched anarchy that suited the band just fine, while of the later albums only 'Some Girls' even pretended the group were a rock band anymore rather than a pop band who played fast. The Stones have, in truth, become pretty good at honing a whole new style which no other band ever quite managed to mine so successfully: the band's only natural successors in the 'swampy rock' vein were Credence Clearwater Revival and they never came close to the sense of menace or emotional heartbeat the Stones got in a guitar riff. By making 'A Bigger Bang' the Stones effectively turned their back on the sound they'd pretty near perfected, falling in the traps of making this record a little too repetitive and predictable in their haste to prove their rock credentials.

The best songs on the album remain the ones that are the most revealing. A good third of this album is about Mick Jagger's recent and rather bitter split with wife Jerry Hall, his girlfriend since 1977 and wife since 1990 - the legality of which was questioned in court during the divorce in an attempt to keep the alimony low. The press at the time had a field day, bringing out the usual images of Mick as a hard and cruel man intent on making the lives of those he loved a living hell without a shred of remorse, but this album's lyrics reveal a different side. Like Charlie, Mick has a point to prove in defence of what people are saying about him and sounds eager to pour himself into this project, desperate to write out his side of the story. Though the record starts with a typically Stonesy take on divorce on 'Rough Justice' which starts with the ultimate teasing and fan-pleasing Jagger couplet ('One time you were my little chicken but then you turned into a fox, one time I was your red rooster but now I'm just one of your cocks!') and detours into the typical stinging put-down 'Look What The Cat Dragged In!', the rest of the album finds Jagger in sadder confessional mood. 'Laugh I Nearly Cried' and 'Streets Of Love' feel like the deepest, darkest Jagger songs in decades and one where he admits his guilt and his faults like a 'grown up', something fans thought they'd never hear ('The awful truth is awful sad, I must admit I was awful bad!') The fact that both songs happen on an album where the modern Stones sound their youngest is all part of the oddness of this album. Both songs are great and continue the good work of the better run of Stones ballads we've had recently, with the biggest bang on the record seemingly the one that's breaking Mick's heart in two, the end of this relationship clearly causing more pain and grief than his snarling put downs of Chrissie Shrimpton or his how-do-I-get-out-of-this? response to Marianne Faithful's drug overdoses. Had the Stones been brave enough to do a whole album in this vein, after teasing us with bits and pieces in a similar vein on all the 90s Stones albums, this record could have been an even bigger bang even if it might not have sold so well by taking the Stones even further away from the sound everyone thinks they have (but don't).

Both songs show up the biggest weakness with 'A Bigger Bang': a lack of melody. Not since 'Undercover' and 'Dirty Work' has there been a record full of so many songs that you can't actually remember at the time you play them. Like those two albums, this record is mainly about rhythm and grooves but it lacks even the usual Stonesy guitar riffs for the most part, Keith's and Ronnie's parts for once buried underneath Charlie's and Mick's. This is not the Stones album to buy if you only want to hear the band's latest variation on their typical Chuck Berry riff as the closest we get is the U2-style choppy fretwork of 'Rain Fell Down', the Lenny Kravitz style 'She Saw Me Coming'. The best solo on the whole album comes at the end on Keith's showcase 'Infamy', where it's shared by Mick on harmonica and Darryl Jones on bass. Only when 'Streets Of Love' or 'Laugh I Nearly Died' come on do you realise how badly this album is missing the sort of gorgeous beauty of this band at their best or even their average - that in the band's haste to rock they've largely forgotten how to roll. The Big Bang, remember, started with a lot of noise and power (Keith admitted he was thinking of a big explosion when he came up with the name, as well as the creation of the universe and probably the sexual and drug connotations too - I think we can safely accept the official explanation that the band have a 'fascination with scientific theory about the origin of the universe' as something of a tongue-in-cheek exaggeration) but the inertia fades away the further you get away from this source - meaning that the longer you go without playing this album the more you've forgotten how it goes, without any of the usual guitar hooks or sweeping chord changes to truly stick in the memory the two highlights apart.

Which is not to say that fourteen tracks on this album are without worth. Some of the songs here show real invention, even while they're dressed up as pure empty pop-rock songs. ' Sweet Neo Con' is quite unlike anything else the band have ever done, Mick saving his sarcasm and sniping for 'neo-cons', former left wing liberals who turn Conservative-voting capitalists in middle age. One of the biggest changes since the last Stones CD is that Mick is now a 'sir', knighted by the queen in 2003. Though the public were generally supportive of Jagger's slow acceptance into the establishment, Keith for one was horrified and took to calling his colleague 'Sir Brenda' to annoy him (a variation on a nickname hanging round since the 70s based on reports of Mick's bisexuality). Mick's lyrics sounds like a defensive retort that he isn't going to become one of 'those' people, reformed do-gooders who change political stance when they have money to protect. Though we've heard political Jagger before, his barbs have generally been posed at a faceless establishment or  on 'Undercover' war-mongerers and arms dealers. This is a first, a political attack with the pointed chorus 'How come you're so wrong?!' 'Rain Fall Down' too is near-unique in Stones circles: the first 'working class' song since 'Salt Of The Earth' got things so spectacularly wrong on 'Beggar's Banquet', a night of 'sweet love' being a glorious moment of warmth in a life 'like a battleground' in a grey town slum where it's always raining (I never knew Mick had been to my home town or Ormskirk!) 'Back Of My Hand', too, finally treats the blues with care, something I've been longing the band to do ever since the appalling collection of blues songs that marred their work across the 1980s and 1990s. The 'straightest' blues performance since 'Little Red Rooster', it proves how effective the band can still be when they sing like they mean it. That's two classics then and three other songs that win kudos for being brave - in the olden days enough for a pretty strong LP; it's only stretched out to sixteen tracks things start looking a bit thin.

The album's consistency is, as usual with the second half of the Stones' career, their biggest problem. Had 'A Bigger Bang' been released in the age of vinyl, trimmed back to a strong forty minute set with B-sides, the world would have gone crazy. Instead there are too many songs like Keith's latest slow motion ballad 'This Place Is Empty', the too-many-rockers-now filler of 'Dangerous Beauty' and 'Driving Too Fast' and the country ballad 'Biggest Mistake' that are, well, 'A Bigger Bang's biggest mistakes. There are two albums' worth of material here not one and way too much to take in in one go, while cutting the album into bits reveals just how similar too much of this album is. In a way it's the opposite problem of 'Voodoo Lounge' and 'Bridges To Babylon' which has such fun exploring new ways to do things with the old Stones sound and throw in a few trademark templates for fans that they rather ran out of time. 'A Bigger Bang', though, feels like a writing partnership that was having such fun they just didn't know when to stop, before handing over to a band who were having more fun in the studio than they'd had in years and didn't know when to stop either. Far be it from me to tell someone else they've gone on too long and editing's their friend, but there's a groundbreaking ten track album inside this sixteen-tracker trying to get out.

All that said, 'A Bigger Bang' still has more minuses than pluses and largely makes up in performance what it lacks in songs. The Stones never sound as if they're giving less than their all or that they don't care about what they're performing, which will come as a shock to anyone whose arrived here after our recent reviews for so-so Stones albums like 'Out Of Our Heads' and 'Emotional Rescue'. After eight long years away, broken only by the four new songs on '40 Licks', a lot was resting on this album to remind the world that the Stones had a place in the modern world and they do that with ease. At a time when AAA releases were at an all time low, when Paul McCartney was reduced to pretty re-makes of 'Blackbird' on 'Chaos and Not Much Creation', when Paul Simon could only manage half a 'Surprise', when The Who were caught on a seemingly endless 'Endless Wire' and Neil Young was wasting his talents with the world's least interesting soap opera 'Greendale', 'A Bigger Bang' was something of a relief (Rolling Stone Magazine voted it the second best album of the year, behind Kanye West, which will give you some idea about what a rotten state music was in at the time). The Stones don't mess up too much, add two great songs to their back catalogue, stretch their palette on three tracks including a blues they actually don't mess up, pitch in another half dozen or so mixed tracks that sound great mainly thanks to Charlie and don't release anything close to their worst material. That might not be enough for the career renaissance so many people took it to be (in truth this album evens out at about the same level as the more highlights but less consistent trio of 'comeback' albums that came immediately prior), but it's a lot better than many of us feared or expected. 'A Bigger Bang' allows the band to defy the laws of physics and music, time travel back to a time when they sounded young and fresh and inspired and deliver an album any fresh new band would be pleased to have on their CV.  That, surely, is more than enough bang to your buck.

 'Rough Justice' is the stinging sound of outrage and betrayal, the opposite feel of 'Aftermath's sneering put down as Mick is made out to be the guilty party as he pleads it's all lies, that 'I'd never break your heart!' Far from being reformed though, Jaggers still swaggers, informing us that she still loves him for his 'animal attraction' and using the song to strut like a peacock never mind a little red rooster. Though the music sounds like the usual sort of Stones-like filler, it was apparently the first riff Keith had written in his sleep since 'Satisfaction', who opens the album on a typically crunching guitar line before a rare appearance by Ronnie (whose missing for nearly half this album) on slide guitar. It's Charlie though who you notice the most: you sense that even if he wasn't mixed so loud and in your face he's still be the loudest thing in the room, musically spitting feathers to go with Jagger's histrionic performance. Released as the Stones' first double single 'Let's Spend The Night Together/Ruby Tuesday', it was paired with its polar opposite 'Streets Of Love'. A shot of adrenalin with an appealing first verse, though in truth not much else going on past both, the song did well enough to peak at #15, the band's best since 'Like A Rolling Stone'.

 'Let Me Down Slow' would normally be a sweet ballad, but no one seems to have told Charlie that as he's off again at a hundred miles an hour. Mick, again unusually, sings of feeling fragile as he fears the love of his live is about to dump him and begs 'baby let me down real slow'. It's in sharp contrast to 'who wants yesterday's papers?' and reveals new depth as Mick turns detective and sees clues everywhere that his girl is seeing someone else (she's coloured her hair, she's smiling to herself and has a 'swish in her step'), whilst avoiding the confrontation that might put it all straight. A sweet chorus with some descending chords makes this track more memorable than most on this album and there's a nice bed of guitars for the track to sit upon, but the heavy drums are a mite intrusive to be honest and though Charlie nails the turbulence in the song you long for the 'pauses' in the song when he doesn't play. Unfortunately, too, while the song shows promise the track doesn't really lead anywhere - there's a half-hearted slide guitar solo where the 'peak' confrontation/twist in the story should be and Mick ends it as confused and anxious as when he began. How much better the song might have been had he discovered that he was wrong - that she's dressing up because she's worried about losing him or smiling because she's just realised how great he is. The Stones were always naturals at paranoia (see '2000 Light Years From Home') but that gets rather lost inside this song despite some good ideas.

The rocked-up blues riff opening to 'It Won't Take Long' is Keith's greatest moment o the album, a new way of doing an old song that sounds more menacing than many of the Stones' more formulaic uses of the riff. The sound inspired Jagger to a lyric that tries to stay positive and dismissive, like all past Stones 'break-up' songs, but is clearly nursing a broken heart. Though Jagger sings with all the passion and verve of old, we don't believe him for a minute as he protests just that bit too much, spending four minutes to tell us that he'll forget his girl in seconds. A clever chorus expands on the idea, repeating the world war one mantra that 'it'll all be over by Christmas', something most of the people who signed up didn't really believe either (note that Mick doesn't say which Christmas). When Mick adds that 'it seems like yesterday when we first met' he's trying to be dismissive about how little the relationship (almost certainly his marriage to Jerry), but the effect is also that the relationship has only just got started and has so much further to go. A flying Keith suddenly soars over his and Ronnie's twinned weaving on the riff, the counterpunch giving this song a real weight as the track tries to soar and snarl all at the same time. All this adds up to one of the most depressive last verses the Stones ever wrote, Mick's narrator trying to make sense of the fact that the love of his life now only exists as 'a few memories in an old shoe box' and that 'life comes as quite a shock'. Though the track is delivered to the same high energy level of the rest of the album there's a lot more thought that's gone into this one and thankfully Charlie's desperate how-dare-you drum rolls this time perfectly sum up a man whose realising the mess he's in by stages, each verse chorus and solo punctuated by a fresh panic attack.

 'Rain Fell Down' also did well as a single despite being something of a departure for the Stones. A story song about a couple of slum kids who fall in love in a world that had once seemed to offer nothing, it's a song about hope overcoming despair, though it's far from a romantic fairytale - the couple make love to keep warm as much out of romance and get disturbed by the heavy rain that falls on the windows. There's a hint, though, that she's somehow different to Mick's narrator's usual lovers: though just as poor her flat is kept spick and span to her own, with hers the only flat door still on its hinges. The pair feel as if they're living in a battleground' and wonder why they never leave 'this strange grey town', their poverty unmentioned despite being a bonding between them. In the context of this album, where every other relationship is ending in heartbreak, the hint seems to be that anyone whose in love is richer than a millionaire going through a divorce. There's even a verse damning a 'rich bimbo' on TV for spilling her life story for $10,000 - something that should be kept precious and whose betrayal should be above any sum (something to ponder when Keith's mud-slinging autobiography comes out five years later...) The backing cleverly mirrors this hopeless yet happy existence, Keith's guitar 'ringing a bell' as he plays the part of the phone ringing off the hook which the couple are too wrapped up in themselves to notice or answer. There's some nice interplay between the guitars, which sound more like lots of Keiths to me than Keith and Ronnie and another example of Charlie playing out of his drumskins which raises this song up another level too. 

'Streets Of Love' proves that the Stones can still write meaningful songs as well as catchy ones. Despite forty odd years of Jagger being brutal to the women and partners who slow him down, it's hard not to feel affected as the same thing happens to him. There's a moment of realisation in this song - the 'awful truth' as he puts it - that, actually, he's not just the victim but a bit of the villain here too that's so un-Stones like that it catches you almost as off guard as it seems to catches Mick. Taking the opposite tack to the equally gorgeous 'Out Of Tears', a now homeless Jagger again finds himself walking the streets through the pouring rain, imagining it 'drenched with tears'. Like many a song of heartbreak, Mick walks past a whole world that seem to be in love apart from him, couples hand in hand and enjoying wedding marches on 'the streets of love' while he's never felt more alone and all he can see is the rain beating down on him. The street seems to go on forever, just as a lonely future beckons, and Mick walks it like some doomed figure from Greek Myth, trapped here for a 'thousand years'. We've never heard Jagger like this - fragile and desperate - and it coaxes one of the best vocals of his career, certainly one of the best where he actually sounds like he means it without a trace of irony. People have often discussed whether Jagger is really a great singer or not and whether he's been putting his on all these years with sheer charisma, but this performance - which goes from growl to 'Miss You' style falsetto - is proof that Jagger is one of music' best expressive singers when he wants to be. Clearly this is mainly a Jagger song and one he clearly wanted to get off his chest, but it sounds like Keith had a lot to do with this song too: though it's easy to miss the growling howling guitar riff buried at the bottom of a strings-heavy mix is perhaps the best on the album, channelling all that inner frustration and sadness. There's an icy calm about this one though despite the extra power the band bring to the song, something about it which says that its final this time, with no more reconciliations from here. A highly impressive song that's very different to even the usual Stones ballads and perhaps the first Stones song that's ever been about guilt.

Clearly Mick's in a bluesy mood, although perhaps strangely 'Back Of My Hand' ends up being the only blues song on this Stones album after quite a run on the past few. It's quality not quantity that matters though, with Jagger a more convincing bluesman than usual here, though it's his overdubbed harmonica playing that really catches the ear. Keith and Ronnie swap guitar parts over a thick and heavy bass sound that's about the closest the band get to their trademark 'swamp rock' in this period. In a hint of the 2012 track 'Doom and Gloom' to come a preacher warns about problems ahead that he can read as clear as 'the back of my hand' (a bit of sooth-saying two years ahead of the 'credit crunch'). After switching from 'hearing' the news, suddenly Jagger's narrator can see it firsthand, 'Love' and 'misery' are dancing by the side of the stage and the veterans of Altamont know what it's like when darkness stalks the concert. A third verse is set in Jagger's mind as he goes a bit mad, haunted by visions and - in the nattiest rhyme on the album - 'Goya's paranoias', with reality slowly sliding into the abstract visions of the painter. Similar to 'You Gotta Move', but better, the first Stones blues song to be about creeping doubt and a universal fear works so much better than their usual woe-is-me-millionaire-in-love stuff and makes 'Fancy Man Blues' seem like a distant memory. Maybe the ghost of Brian Jones was even persuaded to come back and take a look at what his old band had become without disgust on this one, the first Stones recording for years of which you sense he'd approved.

'She Saw Me Coming' was one of those songs that probably could have gone though, or at least been demoted to B-side. It's more of a chorus than a song, with Jagger back to his innocent victim against an evil woman rant as he complains about being 'screwed'. This is, however, the first Stones character to be a real bad girl, out on parole for some wicked deed - Jagger assumes it's because she 'burglarised my soul' and she 'lined me up in her sights' like a sniper with a gun after his heart. He's clearly having fun venting his anger against Jerry and you sense this exactly the sort of song his therapist would have told him to write to get this period out of his system. However it's not quite like the earlier Stones song in the same line either: 'I'm a sucker!' he sings, before adding in the fadeout 'Boy am I a dope - she had me on the ropes!' - we'd never have had this sort of admission on any previous Stones album as Jagger again partly blames himself at the same time he tries to pin all the blame on 'her'. The rest of the Stones though get very little to do on a song that won't move out of it's simple groove all the way through and only Mick and an even noisier Charlie, like a teething toddler with ADHD let loose on a drumkit really seem to 'understand' this song. Keith and Ronnie sound pretty annoyed at having to sing the title line over and over in fact. That said, it's impressive that such a simple song still comes off as well as it does - earlier albums would have smothered this track with superfluous gospel backing singers, synthesisers and backing singers and it works really well reduced to power-trio-with-singer.

Even the Stones on rare band form can't quite rescue 'Biggest Mistake' though, which dare I say it really is the biggest mistake on the album. It's a country-style weepie ballad (though minus Ronnie's pedal steel for once - this seems to be one of the songs where he's missing!) and the most generic 'breakup' song on what's arguably the Stones' biggest 'break-up' album. Mick realises once again 'I think I've just made the biggest mistake of my life' as he has one affair too many for his marriage - but you wouldn't know that from the strangely bouncy music or the poppy 'Miss You' style 'oohs' he adds over the top of the track. Jagger confesses that he was 'brainwashed' by love and portrays his decision to sleep with someone else as a 'rebellious' moment against 'the system', but he's fooling no one and soon comes back round to reflecting on how it's 'the biggest mistake of my life'. Charlie once again thumps the drums like this is a rock song and only Mick seems to really understand this song, with a Keith Richards guitar part that verges on forgettable - most unusual for him. Even this track, though, is merely bland and forgettable, not horrendous as per 'Sweethearts Together' and 'Gunface' from the last two albums.

Keith's been rather quiet so far across the record, but somehow his latest growled ballad  'This Place Is Empty' feels a little bit ordinary compared to years gone by. A song of heartbreak and absence to reflect the overall down feel of the album, apparently written while his wife was enjoying a night out with friends, it lacks the sparkle of a strong band performance to brighten the song (it might be notable that Charlie's in the background again now, not the front for the first time on the album). Keith might be trying to be at one in solidarity with his partner, perhaps with Jagger chipping in a few lines about his own situation again, but in a reverse of their usual personal lives Keith is enjoying a rare period of love and calm in his life and he's too laidback to get across the message of sadness and despair this song needs. Though this is a very 'Keith' song by past traditions, full of his characteristic phrases like 'it's funny' and 'it's crazy' and the gratuitous request that his girl go topless to comfort him which comes out of nowhere in an otherwise gentlemanly lyric, it might have been better if Jagger had sung it with his harder edge and urgency. Mick does appear  by the way, unusually or as Richards song, playing the slide guitar part in Ronnie's absence - as well as the drums on an early version that just featured the Glimmer Twins. The result is another song of heartbreak that sounds suspiciously close to 'Sleep Tonight' 'Slipping Away' and 'Thru and Thru' without the same sense of authenticity and less of a melody than all three. That said, Keith's mastered his vocals and the low growl that fifty odd years of hard living have done to his formerly squeaky voice and it's a lot better than anything that appears on his next solo album 'Cross-Eyed Heart' (one of the most disappointing releases of last year).

'Oh No, Not You Again!' returns to the album tradition of noisy pop songs like loss. It's one of the best examples of this style though, with the punkish rush of 'Some Girls' inspiring another blistering band performance where sumo wrestler Watts attacks the drum kit with so much weight and power you're sure it's going to break. Jagger howls his vocals out with such force that the lyrics are hard to hear, which is a shame because they're rather good in a simple way. Mick is distracted by beauty in the first verse, then realises his mistake and tries to break away, turning from being seduced into being stalked. Howling in rage that he didn't take his own advice he screams 'oh no!' like he's just joined John Lennon in primal therapy before telling us that this partnership dates back decades - she's had time to have daughters and even grandaughters since they last met. This could of course be pure fiction - it's a very Stones idea that Mick is such a great lover no one ever forgets him - but are there shades of Marianne Faithful's comeback in this song? Having been away from the music business for years (indeed poor Marianne homeless for much of the 1980s) she was suddenly central to the Stones story again, appearing on documentaries and writing an autobiography that naturally said quite a lot about Jagger (the pain of being 'discussed' by his ex-lover, followed a mere few years later by Keith's book, must have been difficult for someone as private as Mick). The character doesn't necessarily 'feel' like her though, taking the lead to such an extent that even Mick declares 'I can't stand the pace!', though it is worth pointing out the lines about a shared 'addiction', with its shades of 'Sister Morphine'. The end result is a noisy thrash that, 'You Got Me Rocking' aside perhaps, is the best Stones wild rocker since the 'Some Girls' album and taped in the same spirit of keeping things simple and raw. There are better songs on this album, deeper tracks on similar themes and one or two band performances even greater, but the performance here is impressive for a band now in their sixties and this is the most the Stones have sounded like a band in a long time too. Keith and Ronnie both get to solo during the course of the song and both are fantastic, aggressively channelling Mick's despair. 
This really should have been the album's single - it tended to be the song from the album that was getting the most radioplay when 'A Bigger Bang' was first sent to DJs for promotion - but got cancelled by 'Street Of Love' instead. A bad move I think - the sheer energy and chutzpah in this song was the best advert available that the Stones of old were really back - for half an album or so at least.

'Dangerous Beauty' just sounds like the last song without the speed or the thrills. Mick is in awe of a beauty who looked as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth and is so 'young and naive' in her high school photograph. However she's a dominatrix on the quiet, with Mick seeing a different controlling side to her that the rest of the world never does. The opening is surely about Jerry Hall again (who does indeed look sweet in her early modelling photographs but comes over a little differently in interviews - Mick's clearly got a 'type' following Marianne and Bianca in that regard), but perhaps worried about libel Mick pulls back. The following verses seem to be about, surprisingly, Monica Lewinsky,  who brought an end to Bill Clinton's presidency in 1999 (a little after the release of 'Babylon'). In Mick's warped vision though she's not the intern but the cleaner, 'with your rubber gloves a favourite with the chiefs of staff'. Perhaps tickled by the idea that love can cause even the leader of the free world to put their marriage and career in trouble, Mick portrays her as his usual femme fatale, knowing exactly what she's doing with a cold heart of steel behind her sweet and innocent ways (actually Lewinksy doesn't sound like that sort of character at all and was almost certainly seduced by her boss, but this version of the story is a more 'Rolling Stones' one). 'If looks could be killing, I'd bet you'd shoot me now!' Mick purrs at the end, back to his taunting best as he inspires an all too brief moment of passion from Keith on the guitar. Once again, though, this song doesn't feature much of a melody and just sounds like something to sing across the drum beats which again feature Charlie thumping away as if there's only him left between doom and despair.

The album highlight is surely 'Laugh, I Nearly Died'. Like 'Streets Of Love' but more so, the swagger has gone and Mick is left realising that he's messed up big time. Used to having his own way he's now rudderless, homeless, pretending that everything's alright as he travels the world nursing the hidden secret that he has no home to get back to. 'I'm so sick and tirrrrrred' he purrs like he means it, as he threatens either to end it for the relationship or himself as he bids his 'goodbyes' and bitterly mocks the fact that he's poured his heart out and all his former loved one can do is laugh. In a mocking switch of the usual roles (this song is the polar opposite of 'Yesterday's Papers'), Mick can't believe that he's been cast aside so casually and meant so little to someone who meant so much to him once. Informing us he 'lost my direction and my home', Mick tries to carry on with his job but he's stung by her ice cold words even in the heat of India and can't get away far enough even in a world of fantasy. The battle-scarred line 'This kind of loneliness is way too hard!' may well be the most chilling moment on a Stones album since Brian Jones went mad with a mellotron on 'We Love You' - the act is over, the hurt has gone too deep and Jagger is magnificent on a lyric that relies on his performance to step up to the mark like never before. Unlike 'Streets Of Love', though, this is no mere solo performance with backing and the rest of the Stones absolutely nail this track. The sudden heart-stopping plunge before Charlie steps in with a 'WHALLOP!' in the chorus and the guitar riff physically drags the players' heads downwards in a terrific musical scowl is chilling. The song ends, as it always must, with Jagger as lost and trapped as ever, with even the band dropping him out and leaving him alone, 'Laugh' ending on an a capella-with-drums blues part: 'Been travelling far and wide, wondering whose gonna be my guide...' Mick's been left with so little he's taken to praying and chanting in a cry for direction, while he scat sings over the backing sea of voices and turns 'diiiiiiiiied' into a twenty syllable word. It's a striking memorable moment that for once bears so very little with the usual Stones signature sound, no longer an attempt to get played on top 40 radio and give fans on tour something to scream about but a real message from a heart that's bleeding and suddenly realising the horror of being s victim rather than a bully. Pure brilliance and one of the greatest moments of any Stones LP or CD.

'Sweet Neo Con' is a slightly more forced experiment. Mick has always had more of a political eye than people gave him credit for and seems to have taken an unusual interest in the election of George Bush Jnr to the Whitehouse. Figuring, probably rightly, that the Christian movement had played a major role in the election, a breakaway bunch of former liberals who pushed for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and labelled their former Democrat parties as 'weak'. Jagger, a lifelong liberal despite that recent knighthood, is appalled and contradictory ticks them off for being 'hypocrites' singing about freedom and democracy and freedom for all while playing such a major part in the balance of power, whilst telling them plainly they're 'wrong'. Mick, of course, was one of the few musicians concerned enough by Western interference in the middle East to write first 'Undercover' about arms deals and then 'Highwire' about the inevitable fall-out. Mick sees through it all for what it really is - a war about oil prices and taking oil fields over for pricey fuel - and complains mockingly 'I love gasoline, I drink it everyday, but it's getting very pricey....' Mick then mentions Halliburton, the gas and oil company named in a bribery scandal in Nigeria in 1994 whose full ramifications only trickled out bit by bit (to 'sweeten the deal' a bag of $1 million dollars was proved to have been 'dropped off' by the American Government, though it was peanuts compared to what the deal was really worth). Jagger also namechecks a questionable merger with the company Brown and Root that took away much of the competition that had formerly kept these sort of companies to account. Mick can see the repercussions from a mile away, getting paranoid and imagining 'bombers in my bedrooms' as the tensions between countries inevitably leads to war and he's arguably even more right then he'd have known back in 2005, events then only half-known leading to the credit crunch and a whole other 'big bang' a few years down the line from this album. Alas a strong lyric is rather batted away on another fairly forgettable melody that's based on one of the simplest two-note guitar riffs yet. Mick's vocal and noisy 'yeah yeah yeahs' are also a little too brittle and off-key for the ears, even though if any lyric gives Jagger a right to mock the world it's this one. Charlie too hasn't slowed down a jot despite the fact this song is so much slower and more thoughtful than normal. Perhaps this track should have been saved for a solo Jagger album as the others sound rather out of place on it, though full marks to the band for even trying a song as against the general tide of politics at the time as this one on a record where nobody seriously expected the band to come out with any kind of 'big' political message.

'Look What The Cat Dragged In' is a final burst of noise and aggression as Mick switches in an instant from victim to aggressor. His missus has been out partying again and she looks a state, leaving Mick tut-tutting like a 1950s housewife in curlers in the corner. He sneers over her doddery 'walk of shame' back to the house, compares her night of debauchery with his own serene night in studying the Sunday papers for mentions of Syria and the Lebanon and throws in a nod to an old rival band with the line 'You look like a leper, dressed as Sgt Pepper!' The best line though: 'Your muscles are doing the walk of shame!' Keith is inspired to add his own curt commentary on the song with a stinging guitar line that's piercing and shrill, the musical equivalent of a slap to the face to wake her up. Of course, in the great context of Stones tradition, this song is deeply unfair. Traditionally the band are the ones out living a party lifestyle and haranguing those who try to hold them back so Mick's harrumphing at one meagre incident seems a tad unfair. You can hear, behind this song's complaint, Mick's sheer glee at someone whose been giving him a hard time for exactly this sort of behaviour falling into the trap herself and is keen to rub it in her face as much as possible. Typically Jagger, the song almost opens with the lines 'I won't interrogate you and I will never berate you' even though that's exactly what he does for the whole song! A useful bit of tension-expelling helped by some terrific one-liners and another strong band performance (minus Ronnie once again) with an especially strong ending that comes to a halt not on the expected final door-slam but on a moody slower question mark. 'We're even now, at last' the finale hints, 'So...friends again?' The rest of the album hints that the answer is still 'no!'

There comes a point on every long-ish AAA album, usually towards the end, where we'll get the inevitable 'car' song. It happened to The Kinks, to David Crosby and Neil Young spent whole albums stuck on the theme. 'Driving Too Fast' is, for once on this album, a weak and cliched lyrics rescued by a glorious Stonesy riff-based backing and a fierce band performance that raises the track way above where it should by when you read the lyrics. Life, as so often happens on these sorts of songs, is a long and winding road. Sometimes though, Mick explains, the journey isn't as simple as it seems from outside the car. A defensive comment on people who are making copy from the end of his marriage to Jerry, he explains that sometimes you make mistakes: you get mud on your windscreen that impairs your vision, you take the wrong roads out of fear that you're about to crash and living life to the full often leaves you 'driving too fast' to make all the bends safely. There are no seat-belts on this performance which features three jagged stabbing guitar parts and a fierce Watts drum part that keeps pushing the accelerator pedal down. Mick reaches a fork in the road, caught perhaps between staying faithful to his family and the intoxication or a new romance and he longs to take both and see where each of them leads - though he fears he's doomed whichever direction he takes, with blind alleys in both. Though the relationship has 'run out of gas' it's already out of control and there's nothing left to do but wait for the inevitable crash. Not the best song on the album by a long way, but even this sort of track - which could so easily be filler material of the sort written by every band continuously - is well handled here, with a strong Stones performance that's wild but unlike some earlier albums still impressively under control.

The last word, as so often happens, is left to Keith on his first uptempo rock song in years. There's an unusual feel about Infamy, though, which is based around a bubbling bass lick and features an even trickier, tighter tempo from Charlie. Perhaps remembering his own similar tales of betrayal (maybe even Mick sleeping with girlfriend Anita Pallenberg while making the film 'Performance'), Keith says that a long term friend or partner has made something 'abundantly clear'...but won't tell us what. The title reflects the old Carry On Caesar joke ('Infamy!...They've all got in for me!') and is a mixture of typical Jaggerisms and Richardits, suggesting the pair wrote it closely. They may well be writing it to each other, given the lines about how 'it might be you that wrote the song baby - but it's me that's got to sing!' and complaints that once upon a timer 'we got along so famously' (not a line that's particularly true of either's complex love lives but would fit in well with the Mick n Keef story). There's a hint, too, that Keith is digging at Mick's talking on his behalf during the years when his drug problems made him unwell and he backed away from Stones decisions: 'I'm still learning my lined baby, since you re-wrote my part!' The song fits with both men's images: Keith the outlaw, hunted by the law for reasons he doesn't quite understand and Mick's recent feeling that everyone and everything seems determined to let him down. Though not an obvious song for Keith to sing (it's a shade too high), he copes well with the vocal (it's a relief to hear him on something other than a slow ballad by this point), while Mick backs his partner up with a strong harmonica part beside him. Though the song is another of the album's parts that seems strangely melodyless, a strong riff and another great band performance keep the song ticking over nicely and it's a good track to go out on: the first time a Stones album has ended on a rocker rather than a ballad since 'Some Girls'.

The end result, then, is certainly a noisy bang of an album, though one with care and real emotion hidden not all that far underneath the aggressive backing tracks and Charlie using the album as his gym routine. Whether it's a bigger bang than what came before is a moot point: the record plays it safer than 'Voodoo Lounge' or 'Bridges To Babylon' and recycles too many idea and riffs to sustain the longer running time. It is, however, a more consistent album than either with tracks that fall to average at worst and rise to masterpieces at best, with the recent pain of Mick's breakup with his longest relationship ever inspiring him to new heights of eruditeness and the Stones to new heights of brotherhood and unity in the studio. We still don't quite have the 'amazing comeback' the Stones and indeed their reviews have promised us for so long, where everything works and the band are the equal of any modern rock band with work on a par with their past. This record's Achilles heel is the lack of the sweeping melodies that used to be second nature to the Stones, even as recently as the last album, while there are also far less memorable guitar riffs in Keith's locker than probably any other Stones LP (though it's touch and go with 'Black and Blue'). Great lyrics and even greater band performances aren't quite enough to make this album a classic without those things, but two out of three ain't bad. This is, after all, quite an incredible past to match up to and the Stones come closer than a lot of other bands have ever managed who have lasted so long. By turns fierce, guilty and political, 'A Bigger Bang' is a lot better than any band entering their 43rd year has any right to be. The awful truth is awful sad: if you expected any more than this after so many years, you're awful mad. Maybe though, just maybe, the Stones will surprise us all next time around and tick all three boxes, though as the time between albums ticks to another ten years - two longer than even the wait for this one - and the fallout from Keith's autobiography continues there remain fears that 'this could be the last time'. There are worse ways to go out than this though: sassy, witty and intelligent behind the youthful energy and bluster this is a worthy enough bang to end on. 

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