By JON PARELES
The New York Times
September 4, 2005
SOMETIMES clichés are underrated. The Rolling Stones embrace them wholeheartedly on "A Bigger Bang" (Virgin), their first album of new songs since 1997, and they're better off for it.
The sound is unadorned Rolling Stones: two guitars, bass, drums, a splash of piano and Mick Jagger's trans-Atlantic blues bray. Horns are absent, backup singers and synthesizers are scarce. Nearly all of the 16 songs are about woman trouble, with titles as generic as "Let Me Down Slow," "Rain Fall Down" and "Dangerous Beauty." Take them at face value: the Stones have decided they don't need anything but the basics. A riff, a catchphrase, a smidgen of melody, an attitude, and there's a Stones song.
Consider "Oh No, Not You Again." It starts with Charlie Watts on drums socking the four 16th notes he has used to pump up scores of songs. Two chords bounce between rhythm guitars, and then stop-time chords blare while Mr. Jagger tries to snuff out an old flame: "Once bitten twice shy," he blurts in an unabashed cliché. When the guitars surge in for the three-chord chorus and Mr. Richards plays his 10,000th version of a Chuck Berry lick, it's inescapable: the old tricks still work.
At least they work for one band. Once the Stones were the model that half the rockers in the universe wanted to follow. Now, in the world of Jay-Z and Green Day, they're an anomaly, refusing to retire and still being handsomely rewarded for it. They play their old-fashioned handmade roots-rock as if they're revving up a perfectly maintained original Ford Mustang convertible. The kids probably don't care - they've got their skateboards, or their Hummers - but it's amazing that the thing still takes to the road at all.
"A Bigger Bang" accompanies a tour that started last month at Fenway Park in Boston and comes to Madison Square Garden on Sept. 13 and Giants Stadium two days later. The band knows that few if any of the people paying up to $450 for (unscalped) tickets are eager for new songs. When the Stones last toured, in 2002-3, they had only a greatest-hits collection to plug. Yet with the die-hard stubbornness of the whole routine - Mr. Jagger, 62, running across stadium stages and doing his hip-shimmying, shoulder-shaking, finger-pointing strut, and baby boomers in the audience longing to recapture youth as the ultimate luxury of age - it must be a point of pride for the band to come up with a new album too.
"A Bigger Bang" has little competition to reign as the best Stones album in two decades. While the band became a touring money machine, it got by with albums - all the way back to "Dirty Work" in 1986 - that included one song for the radio, a few for Keith Richards to croak through and a bunch of throwaways. The Stones tried to modernize and think grand thoughts with the overproduced, undercooked songs on "Bridges to Babylon" in 1997; they tried to strip down and slick up with "Voodoo Lounge" and "Steel Wheels," respectively, before that. But on "A Bigger Bang," the Stones actually sound like they're having fun together, live in a studio somewhere.
It's partly an illusion. "Oh No, Not You Again," which sounds like a simple recording of the thrust and counterthrust of the Stones' guitars onstage, doesn't have Ronnie Wood sharing lead and rhythm guitar; its guitars are credited to Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards (who also played bass), and sound mostly like Mr. Richards. The Stones' gift to rock, along with their song catalog, has been the way the band has defined looseness as perfection. While the rhythm section (which usually includes Darryl Jones on bass) is unswerving, everything on top of it seems up for grabs, not so much arranged as wrangled. To assemble that by overdubbing can't be as casual as it sounds.
The occasional ambitious thoughts on "A Bigger Bang" arrive in the most unadorned, old-fashioned music. In "Sweet Neo Con," Mr. Jagger alternates blues harmonica and disgust with Bush administration rhetoric - "It's liberty for all, democracy's our style/ Unless you are against us, then it's prison without trial." And "Back of My Hand" warns of "trouble a-comin' " in an echo of Delta blues, with Mr. Jagger on slide guitar.
But most of "A Bigger Bang" comes across as something assembled on a dare: How many songs could Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards knock together from a semi-familiar riff and a stock title? More than enough. "Rough Justice," echoing "Brown Sugar," sets the tone with its raunch and slide-guitar boogie. "Let Me Down Slow," akin to "Happy," has a cleverly effective chorus melody - a descending scale as Mr. Jagger sings "Let me down real slow" - and a pushy jumble of guitars. "She Saw Me Coming" unites its riff, title and vocal hook as one bluesy punch, and has some pithy humor: "What a cast of characters/ Her lovers and my friends." Two more of the album's many breakup songs, "Streets of Love" ("Angie" updated) and the countryish "Biggest Mistake," have lyrics that thoughtfully share the blame. And "Driving Too Fast" sets its warnings to another "Brown Sugar" variant that's completely at home on a car stereo.
The Stones know the destiny of "A Bigger Bang." As with the other latter-day Stones albums, most of it will be forgotten when the tour is over, and in the long run even its better songs won't stack up against "Gimme Shelter," "Tumbling Dice," "Honky Tonk Women," "No Expectations," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "The Last Time" and dozens of other past glories. "A Bigger Bang" is about simpler, more immediate pleasures: a twang, a beat, a moan, a laugh. They're enough to keep a great band going.