The Rolling Stones – A Bigger Bang

A Bigger Bang (2005)

B

1. Rough Justice 2. Let Me Down Slow 3. It Won’t Take Long 4. Rain Fall Down 5. Streets Of Love 6. Back Of My Hand 7. She Saw Me Coming 8. Biggest Mistake 9. This Place Is Empty 10. Oh No, Not You Again 11. Dangerous Beauty 12. Laugh, I Nearly Died 13. Sweet Neo Con 14. Look What The Cat Dragged In 15. Driving Too Fast 16. Infamy

 

Well, waddaya know! It only took the Strolling Bones a mere eight years to gather their aching joints and sagging chests all together in a studio to make a new album. And people say they’re old and have lost their work ethic! What a ridiculous notion!

On a less sarcastic note, A Bigger Bang is the most formulaic album the Stones have released since It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll. And even though It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll was released 30 years previously, when the Stones were still a virile, relevant young rock band, while A Bigger Bang was released at a time when the Stones were about as virile and relevant as bowl of stale rice pudding, they both get the same decent grade. Why? Because I’m sucker. I let myself fall for this shit – all these stale, blatant retreads of glories past. But can you really blame me? I was 14 when this thing came out. I was the height of the initial burst of my Stones obsession and, after four years of subsisting on an exclusive diet of classic rock, was convinced that all new music sucked. The Stones hadn’t released a new studio album since I was 6—i.e. before I cared—and as far as I was concerned, A Bigger Bang was gonna save rock ‘n roll. It was the most exciting thing to happen in the history of ever. It came out the same day I started high school, and on my way home, I picked up a copy at Best Buy, rushed home with it, put it on, and much to my delight, it sounded exactly like the Rolling Stones. And to a 14-year old Stoneshead, that’s all that really matters. “Therefore,” I thought to myself, “this is the best Stones album since Some Girls!”

In the years since that wonderful day, I have come to realize that “a generic song by the Rolling Stones” does not necessarily equal “a great Rolling Stones song.” But my 14-year old self was right about one thing: A Bigger Bang is the most nominally Stones-like record the band has released since Some Girls. Indeed, there are moments—moments that rarely last for the duration of an entire song, but still, moments—that sound like a hint of the old magic getting resurrected after a long period of neglect. The entrance of Ronnie’s slide guitar at the end of “Let Me Down Slow.” Keith’s crunchy opening riff to “She Saw Me Coming.” Keith’s ripping Berry-esque solo on the great stomping rocker “Oh No, Not You Again.” And sometimes the magic does last for entire songs – the guttural harp-and-slide-guitar blues “Back Of My Hand” (played so straight that Brian Jones would’ve dug it) and the leadoff rocker “Rough Justice,” which, unlike many of the rock songs on this album, harkens back to the down and dirty Stones rockers of yore not just in structure, but in spirit. I have heard people say things about this song like “it has no melody” and “it sucks.” These people are stupid assholes with coral wedged in their frontal lobe. “Rough Justice” is a great fucking Stones rocker.

However, my initial assessment that the Stones had overcome their advanced ages and pulled off a late-career classic was pretty far off. There are a few major reasons for this. One is producer Don Was, who also produced Voodoo Lounge and parts of Bridges To Babylon. First of all, he comes across as little more than a glorified yes man for Mick and Keith. Secondly, this album sounds like shit. It’s just one of those (many) albums to come out in the 21st Century that would’ve been significantly better if they didn’t make it so damn obvious that it was recorded entirely on a laptop. There is no subtlety to the mix at all; it’s just blaring digital hissy crap the whole time.

It’s frustrating, but frankly, there aren’t a whole lot of layers to these songs that we’re missing because of the shitty production. The fact is that most of these songs are based on very basic ideas and are executed with very basic, uncreative arrangements. I know, I know, “getting back to basics” and “stripped down” is what virtually every Stones fan in the world wanted from this album after the clusterfuck of overproduction that was Bridges To Babylon. And say what you will about Bridges, but at least it had a quite a few new and ambitious ideas on it. They might have been dumb ideas, but they were still ideas. A Bigger Bang, by comparison, contains almost no new ideas. Most of the arrangements are just plain boring, featuring what sounds like four guys plowing through songs five minutes after they wrote them without giving half a thought to how they would go. Typically the Rolling Stones with just two guitars, bass and drums is a delightful proposition, of course, but that’s rarely the case here. Ronnie doesn’t even appear on half the songs, first of all, because he was drying out in rehab for the millionth time during the sessions and most of his parts were quickly overdubbed over previously recorded basic tracks. Secondly, if Bridges had too many extra musicians on it, Bang has far too few – so few that we get head-scratching personnel like Mick playing bass on several songs. And I think you can believe me when I tell you that he is not a very good bass player, to put it kindly (however, he does a more than adequate job playing the slide guitar part on “Back Of My Hand.” I’m still baffled as to why he had to play it when they had Ronnie Wood just sitting on ass waiting for something to do, but I won’t complain about the result). There is nary an interesting keyboard or piano part on the whole album, and some of Keith’s solos just don’t cut it… might I venture to say that “Let Me Down Slow” could’ve used a nice Bobby Keys sax break instead?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two best songs here, besides maybe “Rough Justice” and “Oh No, Not You Again” are the ones that sound like a modicum of real creativity went into their composition and arrangement: the sultry, enchanting “Laugh, I Nearly Died” kicks the shit out of any Mick ballad in recent memory because it actually sounds like it’s coming from a place of honest emotional pain rather than fake soap opera emotional pain (an example of the latter can be found on this very album!), and the overdubbed Mick choir at the end proves he can still be a committed and versatile vocalist when he tries. Keith’s cute, bubbling “Infamy” is great because it doesn’t sound like anything the Stones had ever done before (or since, seeing as it’s been another six and a half years since Bang came out and still no new album). Mick’s trumpeting harmonica, a pleasingly prominent part of this album’s timbre, is a nice touch.

But really, the biggest problem with Bang is basically the same problem that has plagued every Stones album released since 1989: it’s way too damn long and therefore has way too many shitty songs on it! I mean, the first single off this thing was the honest to goodness power ballad “Streets Of Love,” which, like those shitty ballads on Bridges, is basically a Mick Jagger solo song. I hate it less than “Already Over Me” or “Always Suffering” because the chorus is pretty catchy. But… blech. The other single was “Rain Fall Down,” yet another of Mick’s attempts to recapture a late ‘70s dance/funk vibe that ultimately comes out sounding more like it came from the early ‘90s. Is it really any better than horrors from that era like “Terrifying” and “Sex Drive?” I’m not so sure, but unlike those two, the riff is kinda catchy and it sounds like some actual effort went into it, so I’ll put it in the “doesn’t make me want to vomit” pile. Frankly I’d much rather listen to it than embarrassingly lame political rockers like “Dangerous Beauty” and “Sweet Neo Con,” which is so stupid lyrically I would’ve guessed it was written by Ralph Nader’s invalid 11-year old nephew and not Mick Jagger. Stick to sex and misogyny, Mick.

It might sound like my opinion of this album is lower than that of an album worthy of B grade, but lemme tell you: give me an old fashioned 10-song, 35-minute album of “Rough Justice,” “Let Me Down Slow,” “It Won’t Take Long,” “Back Of My Hand,” “She Saw Me Coming,” “Oh No, Not You Again,” “Laugh, I Nearly Died,” “Driving Too Fast,” the excellent non-album rocker “Under The Radar” and “Infamy” and get someone else to produce it, and you’ve got a legitimately great Stones album that could hold its own when compared to almost any era of their work. I mean, this stuff is good. Mick is even doing his best to sound smutty and loose again, even if his attempts come across as forced and awkward (“The moon is yellow/I’m like jello/Staring down your tits”) more often than they come across as fun (“You look like a leper dressed as Sgt. Pepper/Your cum is all over my face”). So even if Bang is ultimately a missed opportunity, if it turns out to be their last studio album (which seems increasingly likely at this point), it at least provides us a few things to properly remember them by.