Not counting their blues covers record from 2016, the last time the Rolling Stones bequeathed us with an album of fresh material was during George W. Bush’s presidency. That record, 2006’s A Bigger Bang, was feisty but not especially memorable, and in the nearly two decades since, maybe even they started to wonder if we needed another record by them. If the Stones were going to drag themselves (and us) through the process again, and after such a long gap, they also must have known they’d have to make it worth everyone’s while. Shockingly, they have. A collection of bangers (old-school division) that nobody in their right mind had a right to expect in 2023, Hackney Diamonds isn’t just another new Stones album but a vibrant and cohesive record–the first Stones album in ages you’ll want to crank more than once before filing away.
Whether it’s a first-time Stones producer (Andrew Wyatt), bits of technological wizardry, or simply a desire to remind us why we cared about them in the first place, they haven’t sound this brisk and focused in what feels like a half century. Keith Richards’ and Ron Wood’s guitars are crisp and uncluttered, with most of the slovenly strumming of the past banished. Depending on the song, Mick Jagger sounds snappish, peeved, needy or insouciant, with lyrics and a more pronounced British accent to match: In the sputtery single “Angry,” he spits out, “It hasn’t rained in a month, the river’s run dry/We haven’t made love and I wanna know why.” Not exactly rock poetry, true, but he also hasn’t sounded this engaged with the songs since the heyday of the cassette. “Depending on You” could have been one of those draggy ballads that have made their way onto later Stones albums, but Jaggers wails as if he wants the whole world to hear him.
When all those elements come together, a fountain of musical youth miraculously emerges. Toward the end of “Live By the Sword,” one of two tracks they made with drummer Charlie Watts before his passing in 2021, Jagger snarls as the guitars tear it up around him, and you’d hardly think it was the 21st century. With Wyatt burnishing their sound just enough, songs that could have easily been rote feel revitalized. “Mess It Up” finds Jagger awkwardly trying to connect with anyone under 30 who’s barely heard of the Stones: “You share my photos with all your friends/You put them out there, it don’t make no sense,” he grouses, then complains about his lover stealing his “codes.” (Dude, we think the term is “passwords,” unless you have access to a nuclear arsenal and you’re not telling us.) But the combination of his swooping delivery and Watts’ percussive swing elevates the song, which has a slippery dance-music kick to it. It’s also representative of the way that some of these songs balance Jagger’s popism and Richards’ rockism in a more seamless way than on records like Bridges to Babylon.
Steve Jordan, the longtime X-Pensive Winos member who’s taken Watts’ place on the road, plays on the majority of the record. Jordan hits his kit harder than Watts ever did, but his contributions aren’t as jarring as they could have been. The album’s most ambitious track, “Sweet Sounds of Heaven,” throws everything against the wall: a gradually swelling honky-tonk-gospel arrangement, Jagger ruminating on people going hungry and satisfying his own material thirst, Stevie Wonder rolling along on piano, and Lady Gaga whopping it up for added fervor. Even Richards rouses himself. Ever since his Some Girls highlight “Before They Make Me Run,” his requisite solo cut on every Stones album has felt increasingly slight. But “Tell Me Straight,” which builds on a shadowy, skeletal riff that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Nineties grunge record, is as taut as the rest of the album, and he too sounds invested in every word, avoiding the slurry delivery of the past.
What you won’t find much of here is the late-in-life introspection heard in recent records by some of the Stones’ peers. We’ve arrived at a fascinating period in rock history, when aging boomer rockers aren’t just dragging themselves onstage but continuing to write songs — uncharted territory for them and us. In a first for that generation, we get to hear what‘s on the minds of Bob Dylan, Neil Young Paul McCartney, Paul Simon or Judy Collins as they approach or enter their eighties — in songs that confront mortality, look back over tumultuous lives or recent history, and occasionally rant about the state of the planet or politics.
Here and there on Hackney Diamonds, Jagger indulges in contemplative moments of his own. “The streets I used to walk on are full of broken glass/And everywhere I’m looking, there’s memories of the past,” he sings in “Whole Wide World,” which welds zig-zagging guitar parts with lyrics meant to buck us up during troubled times. Looking to get away from it all in the country shuffle “Dreamy Skies,” he longs for an old AM radio and a Hank Williams record.
Those expressions are about as deep as it gets. Jagger is still partial to songs with choruses like “I wanna get close to you” or “You’ll think I’ll mess it up for you.” It feels like a bit of a lost opportunity: Don’t you want to know what’s going on in Jagger’s head? Instead, in “Bite Your Head Off,” which feels like a grumpier-old-men update of “Get Off My Cloud,” he rages, “Ain’t on a leash/Well, I ain’t on a chain/You think I’m your bitch/I’m fucking with your brain.” (He seems more natural singing, “If you wanna get rich, better sit on the board,” in “Live By the Sword.”)
But with a relatively unobtrusive Paul McCartney contributing bass, “Bite Your Head off” winds up a kicky musical spitball, and the Richards and Wood raveup at the end is the best sort of sonic rollercoaster ride. The album’s closer—Jagger and Richards alone, playing Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ Stone,” here called “Rolling Stone Blues”—has a palpable and obvious full-circle feel to it. But maybe they’re right. Whether this is their last album or not, maybe songs like “Bite Your Head Off” are the way we want to remember them, and rock itself.