The Rolling Stones – Bridges To Babylon

Bridges To Babylon (1997)

B-

1. Flip The Switch 2. Anybody Seen My Baby? 3. Low Down 4. Already Over Me 5. Gunface 6. You Don’t Have To Mean It 7. Out Of Control 8. Saint Of Me 9. Might As Well Get Juiced 10. Always Suffering 11. Too Tight 12. Thief In The Night 13. How Can I Stop

 

I admire anatomically correct art. Fig leaves are for cowards. Show me dicks, tits and pussies, and I’ll automatically know that you aren’t afraid to show the world the way it is, regardless of how ugly or strange it may be. Be blunt. Be straight with me. I respect artists that can do that.

With that in mind, I can’t help but notice that the blue cartoon lion on the cover of Bridges To Babylon doesn’t have a dick. And just like that lion’s nether regions, there’s just something missing from Bridges To Babylon. Something’s just not right. Who knows what it is… maybe it’s Mick’s misguided attempts to stay hip by embracing strains of electronica. Maybe it’s all the unnecessary guest producers and extra musicians. Maybe it’s all the awful ballads. Maybe it’s all three. But whatever it is, Bridges an unfortunate signifier that the Stones had not outgrown occasional futility just because the 80s had ended.

OK, so I may have phrased that last paragraph as a conceit, but if I were to not fuck with you, I would’ve said, “I totally know what it is” instead of “who knows what it is.” It’s just one of those gimmicks we critics sometimes use to introduce obvious points, like the fact that those three issues I outlined up there are the three clearest problems with this album. Starting with the most obvious gripe, Mick is chasing the affections of fickle youth again and steers the band into instantly datable late 90s electronic R&B territory with an array of cheesy synth tones and trendy producers like the Dust Brothers of Beck and the Beastie Boys fame. What’s more, trend-chasing Mick and traditionalist Keith predictably settled into a spat and ended up essentially recording two separate albums in two separate studios. As you might imagine, the result is something of a too many cooks in the kitchen situation. Many of the songs become so cluttered up with unnecessary instrumentation and competing visions that the proceedings just devolve into an ugly mess at certain points. Not to mention that, at 13 tracks and 62 minutes, the album is once again far too long, so that even some of the good songs begin to overstay their welcome. And the bad ones just go on forever… the transparently forced hedonism anthem “Might As Well Get Juiced” is the blues bastardized to the very depths of electronic hell… terrible. I suppose the ultimate crime against classic rock is the guest rap by Biz Markie on the lead single “Anybody Seen My Baby?” But I don’t mind it… it’s the rest of that K.D. Lang rip off that kinda sucks.

Geez, I’m starting to sound like a fickle old Baby Boomer, getting all up in arms about the corrupting influence of modern production techniques defiling my heroes’ music. On the contrary, I think most aging rockers don’t take enough chances at getting out of their comfort zone and incorporating new sounds and ideas. And I admire Mick and the Stones for daring to try something new this late in their career. However, in this case 1) Mick isn’t interested in valuable and interesting modern influences, he’s interested in the most commercial and popular modern influences, because he thought if he used them he would make *Dr. Evil voice* one billion dollars! And 2) for the most part, the electronic embellishments are unnecessary; they get in the way of the songs rather than enhance them. I can tell because the straight Stones rockers without all the extra relish that are on here are pretty darn good. The blisteringly fast, Charlie-driven “Flip The Switch” is built off of one of on Keith’s ugliest riffs this side of “Hold Back” on Dirty Work, but it works – Mick actually sounds as mean and tough as he’s desperately trying to on the rest of the album. And “Low Down” and “Too Tight,” while fairly by-numbers by the Stones’ standards (can you blame them? They’d been writing, and excelling at, this kind of song for 30 goddamn years! How many new places can they really be expected to take them?), are high energy and catchy – just good, solid unmistakably Keithian rock songs. On the other hand, something like “Gunface” could’ve been a strong, bluesy, mid-tempo kick in the rock teeth, especially with that tasty slide guitar from Ronnie—Charlie has said it reminds him a Howlin’ Wolf song, and I can definitely see that—but with that fuzzy synth line, the over-processed, echoey rhythm guitar and the fact that it goes on for like two minutes longer than it needs to, it just starts to get on my nerves.

You might say that with the combination of rock and electronic music and Mick growling and trying his hardest to sound dark and dangerous most of the time, Bridges at times comes off as an attempt to remake Undercover for the 90s. Well, you, specifically, random guy who is reading this review, might not say that. I have no idea who you are. But I do say that. And honestly, it might’ve worked out better if there weren’t so many weak ballads on here. Undercover, if you’ll recall, has no ballads on it; Bridges has several, and they’re just bad news. Something as soap opera-corny as “Already Over Me” has no place anywhere outside of a Mick Jagger solo album, while “Always Suffering” is so lifeless and lacking in any melodic verve whatsoever that I could imagine it being on R.E.M.’s disastrous Around The Sun. Then there’s the whole album-closing Keith ballad suite… I actually like the formless “Thief In The Night,” but the adult-jazzy “How Can I Stop” is a bomb as far as I’m concerned – especially at an unconscionable seven minutes. Put the two songs together and it’s like twelve minutes of Keith ballad in a row to end the album… I love Keef like the crazy, rock ‘n rollin’ recovering junkie grandpa I never had, but come on. It’s a bit much. Fortunately, his delightfully tongue-in-cheek reggae tune “You Don’t Have To Mean It” is easily one of the catchiest and most entertaining songs on the album.

Now, a couple of things on here are actually pretty freaking great. “Out Of Control” sees Mick looking back on his wild younger days and finding himself rather unsettled at what he finds – his fear underscored by a simmering, brooding soul-inflected verse exploding into a guitar-led chorus. Best of all is the gospel-tinged “Saint Of Me,” easily the best post-Wyman Stones song. Keith doesn’t even play on it – that’s Waddy Wachtel, his compatriot in the X-Pensive Winos, his solo backing band, playing those crunching Keef-style riffs and Woody providing those high, sighing leads on the bridge. Plus, Billy Preston returns to play the organ part. It’s proof that the Stones still had some magic left in their old bones. Just, you know… not a lot.