TThe eighth song from the Rolling Stones’ 24th studio album is called Live By the Sword, a succession of variations on the titular maxim about dying by the sword. In truth, it’s not one of Hackney Diamonds’ strongest lyrics. Rather, it feels like Mick Jagger came up with the song’s central idea, realized he was running out of ideas for variations on the aforementioned titular maxim near the end of the first verse, but boldly decided to continue anyway. “If you’re immersed in crime, you’re immersed in mud,” he says. “If you live like a whore, you better be hardcore”: Well, if you say so, man.
Here again, you could convincingly demonstrate that words hardly matter. Live By the Sword is an angry blast that brings together the version of the Rolling Stones that existed from the mid-’70s to the early-’90s – the drums were recorded by Charlie Watts during his final sessions before his death in 2021; Bill Wyman is on bass – with the addition of Elton John who plays the sideman role formerly held by the late Ian Stewart. Not for the last time on Hackney Diamonds, he recalls the moment in the late 70s when the Rolling Stones were briefly galvanized by the arrival of punk, whether they admitted it or not: this is a track from Some Girls’ Respectable, Emotional Rescue’s Where the Boys Go and Neighbors, a refugee from the emotional rescue sessions that ended on 1981’s Tattoo You. Jagger, meanwhile, sings it all with howling conviction, even if you don’t have a clue what he actually means, according to the story of living as a whore. He sounds energetic and engaged, a far cry from the Jagger you occasionally heard on Stones albums in the ’80s and ’90s, who didn’t seem to sing so much as dutifully rearrange a collection of well-worn vocal mannerisms and tics to fit the mood. Songs.
And, in fairness, the lyrics occasionally contain a striking line. “If you live by the clock, you’re in for a shock,” Jagger sings at one point, part of a number of lyrical references to the passing of time (“Is my future all in the past? asks Keith Richards on his solo tour Tell Me Straight) and a nice summary of the Rolling Stones’ most recent recording career. It’s been 18 years since they released an album of original material, a pretty staggering gap even by the standards of a band who clearly understood by the mid-’90s that the touring business had become completely disjointed that of making albums: you no longer needed to do the latter to make millions doing the former. You might have been forgiven for believing that 2005’s A Bigger Bang would be the last album of their own songs that the Rolling Stones would release, with 2016’s Blue & Lonesome a perfectly cyclical finale: the Stones ending their recording career the same way they started it, with an album of blues covers.
If not, perhaps it’s thanks to Andrew Watt, who moved from working with Camila Cabello, Justin Bieber and Dua Lipa to a new role as rock aristocracy-appointed producer: Ozzy Osbourne, Elton John, Iggy Pop and Paul McCartney, who apparently recommended him to the Stones after sessions with Don Was failed. Watt has no qualms about catapulting his most venerable protégés into the 21st century – he had Ozzy Osbourne sing via AutoTune on last year’s Patient Number 9 and did the same with Elton John on the Britney Spears collaboration Hold Me Closer – but he obviously realized that what a 21st century audience wants is for the Rolling Stones to sound like the Rolling Stones.
The sheen of the choruses of Angry and Dedependent on You (both co-written by Watt) suggest the presence of someone who knows how to craft contemporary hits, and there’s a slight modern sheen to the production that keeps it from to sound like a determined recreation of the Stones’ past, even if guest star Lady Gaga nearly hospitalized herself trying to evoke the spirit of Merry Clayton, Gimme Shelter’s legendary guest singer, on Sweet Sounds of Heaven. But nothing quite like the clumsy attempts at trip hop-inspired contemporaneity that followed when the Stones employed the Dust Brothers and Danny Saber on 1997’s Bridges to Babylon and Mick Jagger was happily dissuaded from employing the services once again by British rapper Skepta. Indeed, apart from Lady Gaga, the star guests stay off the microphone and seem happy in the background. McCartney brings an unusually distorted bassline to Bite My Head Off; Both Elton John and Stevie Wonder remain on the piano stool.
Behind its terrible title, which makes the new Rolling Stones album sound like a Clapton-style pole dance club, and its terrible artwork, which makes it look like a mid-range hair metal compilation, Hackney Diamonds has it in spades , they are very good songs. : the ramshackle country horn of Dreamy Skies; the seductive and languid Driving Me Too Hard; Get Close, which clings to a fabulous riff, typically Keith Richards. Clearly, the sessions didn’t go smoothly – in a recent interview, new drummer Steve Jordan complained that the songs were “too pop”, the guest stars superfluous and, tellingly, that Jagger and Richards should have produced them with his help – but the final product crackles with meaning: it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, with mortality encroaching on their thoughts after Watts’ death, everyone involved wanted the partnership to he Jagger-Richards songwriting bows out with something noticeably stronger than A Bigger Bang.
If that was their goal, they succeeded, by offering the rarest of things: a recent Rolling Stones album that requires no special pleading. A sense of finality is added by the closing track, a raw, acoustic version of the song that gave the group their name, Muddy Waters’ Rolling Stone Blues, complete with the kind of shiver-inducing harmonica with which Jagger punctuated Blue & Lonesome and Richards plays a 1930s Gibson guitar similar to the one used by the group’s most legendary bluesman, Robert Johnson. It’s fantastic. “How do we finish?” “” argues Richards on Tell Me Straight, a question to which Hackney Diamonds gives a possible categorical answer.