Hackney Diamonds

The Rolling Stones

Geffen, 2023


REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


After 60 years as a recording band, do The Rolling Stones have anything new to say?

It’s a fair question, to be honest. After the disappointment (sorry, Jeff Clutterbuck) that was A Bigger Bang in 2005, Mick Jagger and crew essentially disappeared from the studio. (And, no, I’m not ignoring the fact they released Blue & Lonesome in 2016, but that was essentially a cover album of blues standards. And they did release the occasional new song on one of the many compilations.) In the process, the Stones seemed to move away from long-time “guest bassist” Darryl Jones—why they never made him a full member is scandalous—and drummer Charlie Watts died, leaving only Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards as original members, along with long-time guitarist Ronnie Wood. (Reminiscent of The Who, anyone?)

So, it was with a mixture of curiosity and caution that one might choose to approach Hackney Diamonds, the first studio release from The Rolling Stones in nearly two decades. And, fairly quickly, the question of whether the Stones have anything new to say is answered: Hell, yes.

Any doubts about whether the Stones are still relevant after 60 years are immediately answered with the one-two punch of “Angry” and “Close To You.” The former is a solid rocker that absolutely swings with energy, even if one might have wished for a little more lyrical development. I don’t quite understand why it sounds like vocal processing was done for Jagger (even if it does fit the song); he proves that, even at 80 years old, he hasn’t lost any prowess, and Richards simply dances on the strings of his solo. As for “Close To You,” the groove laid down by drummer Steve Jordan is reminiscent of anything from the my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll era of the band and is simply infectious. (In fact, while Jordan does his best to keep to the style of Watts’s drumming, he does add enough of his own style to seemingly drive the remaining band members into new musical directions.)

From so many angles, Hackney Diamonds suggests that this is the Stones at their prime. “Depending On You” is a powerful ballad that reminds one of recent numbers like “Out Of Tears,” while the two tracks featuring some of Watts’s final recordings could easily have been culled from Emotional Rescue or Tattoo You sessions, they’re that crisp. (One hesitates to say these are Watts’s final performances with the Stones, as there is allegedly a follow-up album near completion that will feature more of his work.) Interesting to note that one track with Watts, “Live By The Sword,” also features former bassist Bill Wyman—essentially creating a Stones reunion circa 1978.

What makes this all special is when guest musicians blend in so well with the songs that, unless you had the liner notes in front of you, you might never know they played on the song. Elton John’s contributions on “Get Close” and “Live By The Sword” meld together with the songs so flawlessly, it’s almost as if he’d been a member of the band for 30-plus years. Similarly, Stevie Wonder’s piano and keyboard work on “Sweet Sound Of Heaven”—arguably the signature piece of the album—flows in beautifully.

Ah, “Sweet Sound Of Heaven.” Lady Gaga’s vocal contributions are what help to seal this song as, quite possibly, one of the greatest the Stones have ever recorded. One could argue whether this song is a lament to getting old, or recognizing that death indeed touches us all, but the overall result of this track is near perfection. Following it up, and closing the album, with a tape-recorded duet between Jagger and Richards on “Rolling Stone Blues” somehow brings things full circle—and while it does leave the listener screaming for more, the Stones show wisdom in leaving the party before their welcome is worn out.

Stumbles? There are precious few. “Bite My Head Off” is a solid enough rocker, but sometimes feels like the Stones are trying too hard to be edgy. Paul McCartney’s bass work doesn’t really add anything to the mix, making one wonder what the purpose of including him in this project was. And, as much as I normally look forward to the songs that Richards sings, “Tell Me Straight” just feels like it wasn’t as complete a song as it could have been. Still, these are minor quibbles.

Hackney Diamonds is one of those albums you’ll somehow find glued onto your stereo system for weeks at a time, as each listen seems to open up new avenues to discover. The world probably didn’t know it needed a new Rolling Stones record—but Hackney Diamonds is proof that we should be thankful they graced us with it.

Rating: A-

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