Let's just get this out of the way: A Bigger Bang isn't a good Rolling Stones album considering their age. It isn't a good Rolling Stones album compared to their recent work. No, A Bigger Bang is just a straight-up, damn fine Rolling Stones album, with no qualifiers or apologies necessary for the first time in a few decades.
The sixteen songs on this disc, their first studio album in eight years, mark the closest collaboration between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in ages — they wrote many of them nose to nose on acoustic guitars while waiting for Charlie Watts to recover from treatment for throat cancer. Whether fueled by their notorious competitive camaraderie or inspired by their oldest mate's brush with mortality, the results sound like a genuine band effort — loose, scrappy and alive. A Bigger Bang recalls the best things about rough, underrated Stones albums like Dirty Work or Emotional Rescue, though it's also impressively consistent.
The key here comes from surrendering to the groove. Most of the tracks are built around the incomparable spark that's lit when Keith's guitar and Charlie's drums lock into a rhythm. There's never been another team that can drive a band quite like these two, but on their post-Seventies work that magic has usually been buried in the mix. On hard-charging songs like "It Won't Take Long" or the rave-up single "Rough Justice," the Stones reassert themselves as the World's Greatest Rock & Roll Band, and not just as the Greatest Show on Earth.
Mick and Keith have always said they want to grow old like the bluesmen they idolize, and on Bang they finally figure out how: The album revels in the Chuck Berry boogie and classic R&B pulse that's always been their lifeblood. The latter-day Glimmer Twins have often felt the need to coat their songs with layers of winking irony or studio gloss. Here, the dance-floor strut "Rain Fall Down" and the soul ballad "Laugh, I Nearly Died" are powerful because they're played straight, never turning cartoonish or mannered.
Jagger's voice throughout is a knockout, deeper and more forceful than seems possible after forty-plus years of rocking the mike. The subject matter on A Bigger Bang, though, is thankfully a bit less mature. The album mostly sticks to familiar, nasty Stones territory: being heartbroken and breaking hearts, the evils that women (and, sometimes, men) do. Maybe his palimony suit and much-publicized tabloid romances have given Mick some new fire — the women on these songs have "burglarized my soul," "wipe the floor with me" and are "fucking up my life." Not that our boy is much better himself, confessing that "I took her for granted/I played with her mind" and — leaving us to guess at the details — "I was awful bad."
On "Dangerous Beauty," we return to the S&M underworld, as previously featured on "When the Whip Comes Down." The CNN-ready chart-buster "Sweet Neo Con" savages an unnamed born-again, war-happy politician with ties to Halliburton — a surprisingly direct attack from a band whose best-known political statements expressed the ambivalence of "Street Fighting Man" or "Salt of the Earth." But Jagger works up more passion concentrating on what happens when "I see love/And I see misery/Jammin' side by side." The only unseemly moments come from these sexagenarians' frequent usage of words like "cock," "tits" and "booty." (As for the line "Come on in/Bare your breasts" on the otherwise enchanting "This Place Is Empty" — um, Keith, ick.)
Of course a disc that clocks in at sixty-four minutes (just two minutes less than Exile on Main Street) is too long. In their defense, there isn't a single track that's a real lemon, though little would be lost if the perfunctory rocker "Look What the Cat Dragged In" was left for an iTunes exclusive. A Bigger Bang may not be a perception-shattering comeback like Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind/Love and Theft combo, but by returning to their roots and embracing their age, the Rolling Stones have come up with an album that's a worthy successor to their masterworks. Jagger and Richards are still standing — grumpy old men, full of piss and vinegar, spite and blues chords, and they wear it well.