The Rolling Stones Make Their Swan Song Glitter on Hackney Diamonds

The greatest rock band of all time still has a lot left in the tank on their 24th studio album—an ambitious, familiar and explosive return after going 18 years without releasing an album of new material.

Music Reviews The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones Make Their Swan Song Glitter on Hackney Diamonds

In one of the most puzzling album rollouts I’ve ever seen, I won’t judge you if you had no real idea that The Rolling Stones—the greatest band in the history of rock ‘n’ roll—are back with a brand new record. Aside from two singles, Hackney Diamonds went largely undiscussed in most music circles online. Whether no one cared or whether everyone was positively unmoved by “Angry” and “Sweet Sounds of Heaven,” I can’t say for certain. For me, someone with a lips tattoo and a vinyl shelf overflowing with copies of the band’s discography, the notion that they had finally assembled a batch of original songs—after 18 years dormant from such an exercise—was thrilling. It felt like an opportunity for the Stones to right the recent wrongs of their Golden Age of Rock peers. Of course, Hackney Diamonds could’ve come out and sounded like McCartney’s Egypt Station—overproduced, derogatorily campy and, well, relentless in how forced into modernity it became. Even a titan like Neil Young has put out some lukewarm filler joints in recent years. If the 2010s and 2020s have taught us anything, it’s that rock greats are not immune to making clunkers—and the Rolling Stones have certainly made their fair share of those.

The narrative around Hackney Diamonds is that it’s the best thing they’ve made since Tattoo You in 1981. I suppose that much is true; everything from (the largely underrated) Undercover in 1983 to Blue & Lonesome in 2016 felt like a great band on disastrously subpar auto-pilot. But, I suppose that making Exile on Main St. can buy you a lifetime of leisure and freedom—as it should. Some Stones purists might not want this album, especially because it only features the late Charlie Watts’ (who passed away in 2021) drumming on two tracks (“Mess It Up” and “Live By The Sword”). And, sure, I get that. But it means a lot to me—as a fan, as a musical historian—that the band is still here and making damn sure that the last album of original material that Watts played on is not A Bigger Bang.

The Rolling Stones can make whatever the hell they want; they’re responsible for, by my count, the greatest eight-album run in music history (in a tightly contested race with Stevie Wonder that I think the Stones clear by the skin of their teeth), from Aftermath in 1966 until Goat’s Head Soup in 1973. The world of rock ‘n’ roll looks a lot different now than it did when they put out A Bigger Bang in 2005—in that rock music has been pronounced dead, supplanted by rap, indie folk and pop country. And Hackney Diamonds is the Stones’ passionate token of rock ‘n’ roll fit for a 21st century audience. That is not to say that Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood made a Zoomer record; I don’t think they could do such a thing even if they tried. What I mean is, the album pulls—lovingly—from a half-century’s worth of tools and shapes each song as if it could only exist in 2023. It’s a risk, yes. But it’s also pretty damn good.

We begin with “Angry,” a tune that, at first, sounds like it could have been on A Bigger Bang—until it swells into something wholly fierce and urgent for the Stones. Jagger and Richards wrote the song with Grammy Award-winning producer Andrew Watt (as they did two others, “Get Close” and “Depending On You”), and you can sense that the latter’s fresh input found its niche here. Mick does that raunchy bravado just the same as he has for 60 years, but there are some real classic full-band harmonies at play that beckon generations of familiarity. Not to mention, “Angry” features one of Richards’ best original guitar solos in 40 years. As a lead single, it’s a slam dunk. As an album opener, it’s a brilliant re-introduction for a band that doesn’t need one. “Please just forget about me, cancel out my name,” Jagger rumbles with a continuity of ferocity. “Please never write to me, I love you just the same.”

I read someone say that Hackney Diamonds is the Rolling Stones attempting to make a Maroon 5 record. I didn’t think that “Moves Like Jagger” still had our culture in a chokehold, or that anyone has ever thought that Adam Levine’s oeuvre is one worth mining through (and certainly not by Mick Jagger, a man who’s still digging through his own bag of tricks). No part of this record sounds like clunky pop rock fit for festival grounds and rid of any emotional reward; this thing is fresh to the bone, whether you want to admit it or not. A song like “Get Close,” which is so fabulous it remains my favorite cut off the record, is poppy while still boasting one of those quintessential Keith Richards riffs that’ll puncture your soul. Maroon 5 couldn’t dream of making a track so untamed and badass.

If you’re tapping into Hackney Diamonds and expecting the Stones to reinvent the wheel, you’re not going to be satisfied. If you’re tapping into Hackney Diamonds hoping to hear something on par with Sticky Fingers, you’re wasting your time. The treasure trove of this record resides in the fact that it emblazons what The Rolling Stones do best while resisting the temptation to turn the band into something they aren’t. “Get Close” employs the same percussion as something like “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” but the construction of the arrangements taps into a funkified bravado that you might hear on “Tops” or “Start Me Up.” James King’s sax solo on the track is gorgeous and sensual, and it melts into a delicious watermark guitar lick from Richards. Oh, and that piano part? It’s played by the great Sir Elton John—a generous and subtle inclusion that helps parts of the song flirt with power-ballad status, that is until Richards and Wood obliterate it with their six-strings, respectively.

Hackney Diamonds is worth returning to because of how confident Jagger seems to be throughout—a great shift from A Bigger Bang, where it felt like he was mostly phoning the whole thing in. Here, he’s not shying away from throwing the word “bitch” around like it’s 1971 (“Bite My Head Off”); he’s also pretty vulnerable about his own mortality, singing about still being too young to die and feeling hardened in the wake of his own interpersonal dependency (“Depending On You”). More than anything, Hackney Diamonds gets mad when it needs to, soft whenever it pleases. Sure, who would ever expect the Rolling Stones to sugarcoat anything? But, it is refreshing to hear these guys sing like they’re 30 years old again and sleeping with all of England—with the added, mature flavor of then, the next morning, still feeling a tad bit morose about how much closer they are to kicking the bucket. Imagine Exile on Main St. if its protagonists truly bought into the last days of their own destinies. When Jagger sings about running away to a place so isolated that it doesn’t even have murmurs of small-town chatter on “Dreamy Skies,” you might just start believing he means every word of it. But then, as any rock star married to the road and to the fame is wont to do, he admits that he loves every bit of it. “You see, it can’t last forever, I’ll be diving back in,” he croons. “It’s good for my soul, yes, it’s saving my skin—‘cause I love the laughter, the women, the wine. I just got to break free from it all.”

Instrumentally, the Rolling Stones lean pretty heavily into the twang of their country-rock inclinations more than they have in years on Hackney Diamonds. “Dreamy Skies” features Jagger blowing magic into his harmonica, “Depending On You” has got some cowboy chords disguised like trademark Richards melodies, “Live By The Sword” is energetic dive bar raucousness through and through (and features the return of longtime bassist Bill Wyman), “Driving Me Too Hard” is the closest the band has come to the Western glamor of “Honky Tonk Women” in 50 years. The other dominating sonic theme is this grand, big-budget projection of rowdy, hedonistic rock ‘n’ roll. “Bite My Head Off” finds Paul McCartney tapping in with a bassline so distorted and twisted that you’d never guess it was his four-string making those sounds, while “Mess It Up” is melodramatic pop goodness that lends itself to the loud, soaring wonders of disco—a realm that made Some Girls one of the band’s best records ever, all while hanging on every last note Jagger punctuates. It’s just as disco as “Miss You,” fused with guitar tones from Richards and Wood that sounds exactly like something that Nile Rodgers and Daft Punk would cook up if they were tasked with writing a Rolling Stones joint.

A shining component of Stones records since Let It Bleed that I have adored greatly over the years is the implementation of Richards’ lead vocal—and he does just that on “Tell Me Straight,” a gloomy, reflective number that sounds like the band trying to make sense of their own thesis statement. “How do we finish, how do we start?” Richards asks. It’s not as flashy as “Happy” or as dated as “You Got The Silver,” but it’s more of an emotional punch than either. There’s not much finesse on “Tell Me Straight,” as its arrangement matches the potency of an ‘80s hair metal band turning towards balladry in the ‘90s. But there’s a sincerity in Richards’ own longing and worry. When he sings “I need an answer, how long can this last?,” you latch onto every syllable.

The most remarkable chapter of Hackney Diamonds is the record’s penultimate seven-minute song, “Sweet Sounds of Heaven.” When I say that it very well might just be the best Rolling Stones song since “Emotional Rescue,” I deeply, deeply mean it. It’s a convergence of full-throated R&B and anthemic stadium rock, with the emotional bandwidth of the greatest soul songs you’ve ever heard. Lady Gaga provides vocals alongside Jagger and, after busting up in a delicious back-and-forth harmonizing sesh, Mick says “Play me something, Stevie,” and then Stevie Wonder employs a sentimental piano melody. To have the greatest performer in the history of music play on your record and not take the spotlight, what an unfathomable symbiosis to display—and it doesn’t hurt that “Sweet Sounds of Heaven” is an instant classic.

The song could have fit so perfectly on Black and Blue, alongside an equally epic track like “Memory Motel.” But even then, that feels incorrect. “Sweet Sounds of Heaven” projects familiar blues riffs and rock instrumentation that has lived and breathed and succeeded across the Stones’ entire discography; yet, it feels infinitely new and polished. That’s not to say it’s completely devoid of nostalgia—a 60-year-old rock band will never make a record that is fully rid of retroness, simply because, when you collect over half-a-century’s worth of tricks and techniques, they live in your work forever. But Gaga covers this song in gold (as she does with literally anything she touches), hitting high notes that wash Jagger’s more subdued grit in a gospel glow.

Jagger cut his teeth on being a sex symbol in rock ‘n’ roll 50 years ago, and he embraced that hubris from his vocal affectations all the way to his hip-shaking on-stage routine. His performative demeanor has been satirized and imitated across popular culture since the second he did his rooster strut and pursed his lips for the first time at a gig. When the Rolling Stones announce new music, I am always worried that Jagger will try too hard to replicate the grandeur that turned him into the greatest frontman of all time. Thankfully, on Hackney Diamonds, he’s largely not trying to be the legend that he is. On “Mess It Up,” he takes a risk when he belts out a high note that registers with imperfections he might have terminated from a take 40 years ago; his viciousness on “Bite My Head Off” doesn’t feel like a cosplay so much as it arrives like it’s being sung by an 80-year-old who’s spent so much time in green rooms and backstage that he doesn’t have a very strong concept of how to actually hold a realistic conversation with a lover. I don’t tap into a Rolling Stones record for lovey-dovey renditions of romance; I tap into a Rolling Stones record because I want to hear what the bruised ego of stardom sounds like. And Jagger, Richards and Wood deliver just that across 12 songs, just as they have for six decades. There is no throughline here but the stubbornness that comes from outliving a lifetime of chaos, drugs and the devious, damning depths of rock ‘n’ roll.

The Rolling Stones have coasted off of stadium tours for, really, three decades at this point. When you’re the greatest band of all time, you don’t have to make anything new. You can keep touring the same hits over and over to the same crowds and make more money than you’ll ever need, but what fun would that be? Hackney Diamonds was worth the 18-year wait—if only because it’s a sobering portrayal of just how good the Stones can be when they’re firing on all cylinders, even in their octogenarian era. Blue & Lonesome was fine and good seven years ago, as it existed as an homage to the genre that Jagger and Richards co-opted into their own fresh take on rock ‘n’ roll. But Hackney Diamonds is, dare I say it, a foray into the present-day for the Rolling Stones, a mark in the continuum of time where they are, without a doubt, still as important, beloved and obsessed over as they were 50 years ago. Jagger is already 80, Richards will get there later this winter. It’s delightful that, at this age, the two titans can still wail and shred. When we get Jagger, Richards, Wood, Wyman and Watt together for the last time ever on “Live By The Sword,” it’s a treatment of tenacity and voluminous, unshakable rock ‘n’ roll—a final exodus of five men who were put on this planet to make music with each other.

And that’s not to say that rock elders making good records is such a surprise or something taboo—more so, the fact that Hackney Diamonds is this damn good further proves that even the bands who’ve given every bit of themselves to the music still have more left to give. Whether this is the Rolling Stones’ swan song or not, that remains to be seen. But the last verse of “Rolling Stone Blues” (a cover of the Muddy Waters song the band lifted their name from) suggests that this might be Jagger, Richards and Wood’s last great brushstroke of intentionality on the world they helped build. “Well, my mother told my father just before I, I was born, she said, ‘Got a boy child comin’, it’s gon’ be, gonna be a rolling stone. It’s gonna be a rolling stone,” Jagger croons. Peel back every layer of this band and you will find the same gravitational core, whether it’s 1973 or 2023: The Rolling Stones always are and always will be.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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