Let me start by being unambiguous: The Rolling Stones’ new album, Hackney Diamonds is near-great. I write this after listening to it a few times, so this is my initial impression, and of course that might change, but upon hearing that the Stones were coming out with a new album, what I was hoping for was something just like this.
Hackney Diamonds sounds like a Rolling Stones album. It isn’t Bob Dylan singing American standards or Eric Clapton’s version of roots music or even late-Bowie being creative but dramatically departing from what he was doing in the 70s. If you took a copy of Hackney Diamonds in a time machine back to the 70s, or the 60s, or the 80s or at any point over the past 60 years, nobody would be surprised to hear it. Nobody would say, “Mick Jagger sounds different,” or, “this isn’t the type of music they usually do.”
I once read a criticism of the Stones, maybe 20 or 30 years ago, calling them the world’s best Rolling Stones cover band. The cruel point was that they had long ceased being innovative. I don’t know if that criticism has ever been true, but what a waste it would be if, in 2023 the Stones decided to make what easily could be their final record and it not sounding like a Rolling Stones album. We’re at the point where that critic, whoever it was, should realize he or she has had the privilege of walking the same planet at the same time as The Rolling Stones and just appreciate the added joy the band has brought to the experience of doing so.
I think of the Stones, along with a very few others— Paul McCartney comes to mind— as connecting people across time and space. People born in the 19th Century have bought Stones albums and gone to their concerts, as have people who will live into the 22nd Century. I saw in a piece of promotional material that Hackney Diamonds is already the #1 album in 14 countries. There are few spots on the earth where their music has never been heard. It isn’t too much to say that The Rolling Stones are part of the human experience.
The album’s first song, “Angry,” is also the first video that comes from the album, and it’s the video I posted here. What we see is a sexy girl, probably in her 20s, dancing in a convertible driving along a street flanked by living billboards of the Stones from various earlier points in time. So it looks like a younger band is performing the song as the girl passes the billboards. It’s a high-tech gimmick, but in a way it’s entirely plausible. It’s plausible that “Angry” could have been part of the Stones’ set from any of those earlier times, and it’s plausible that sexy girls in their 20s are ecstatically dancing to this very song today.
I remember hearing Frank Sinatra singing, maybe when he was in his 70s, and thinking specifically that Mick Jagger won’t be able to do that when he’s in his 70s. Mick is now 80.
Is there any sign of the bands’ age in Hackney Diamonds? The answer is yes, but you have to look for it. The songs seem not to be especially complex but they do seem embattled. Mick pleads, “don’t get angry with me” (in “Angry”); and “why ya bite my head off” (in “Bite My Head Off”). He sings about being ripped off in “Mess It Up” and laments needing to “take a break from it all” in “Dreamy Skies.”
Many of the lyrics don’t directly address aging but express the laments of old men: “I’m still taking the pills” (“Angry”)— carries a different connotation coming from an 80-year old in 2023 than a 20-year old in 1963. “I walk the city at midnight with the past strapped across my back” (“Get Close”). “The streets I used to walk on are full of broken glass, and everywhere I’m looking there’s memories of my past” (“Whole Wide World”). “You see, it can’t last forever…I just need some peace from the storm” (“Dreamy Skies”).
But if the words sound like those of weary old men, the delivery is ageless. Actually, if you think about “I want to paint it black” and “I can’t get no satisfaction,” the Stones have always been complaining, so it might be a mistake to read too much into these latest lyrics.
The overriding message of the album is not that The Rolling Stones are old but that THESE ARE THE ROLLING STONES. As if to emphasize the point, the final song is called, “Rolling Stone Blues,” and the final lines of that song are, “My mother told my father, just before I was born, she said, ‘I got a boy child coming, he’s gonna be a rolling stone.” I guess she was right. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood… and the late Charlie Watts, who appears on two of the album’s songs— were destine to be The Rolling Stones. And this should make us all very happy.
This post obviously has nothing directly to do with David Bowie, but Bowie was a fan of the Stones, covered the Stones and had a #1 single with Mick Jagger. He name-checked the band in “All the Young Dudes” and Jagger in “Drive in Saturday.” Somewhere in the cosmos, David Bowie is listening to Hackney Diamonds right now.