Bridges to Babylon

On their last two albums, the Rolling Stones proved that they still had verve and stamina, and that they could re-create the sounds of their glorious past. But were we satisfied with those records simply because we expect less of the Stones these days? Steel Wheels, from 1989, was at least a welcome reprieve from the group's floundering early '80s years; 1994's Voodoo Lounge was simply a "greatest hits" collection, with the actual hits replaced by new songs that tried to conjure the spirit (if not the substance) of classics like "Lady Jane." It's tempting to want the world's greatest rock & roll band to still be good; it's another thing when the Stones actually deliver the goods.

Enter Bridges to Babylon. Thirty-four years after the Stones released their first single, a kick-ass cover of Chuck Berry's "Come On," Mick, Keith and the boys show that they are still at their best when they're mining American blues, soul and R&B, and giving those styles a new twist. Bridges finds the fiftysomething Stones bitching, moaning, boasting, grieving – and still yearning, with a wink and nod to political incorrectness, for hot, steamy sex. (Hey, so is John Lee Hooker. So why dis these wealthy white guys for wanting the same?)

With production credits divvied up among Voodoo Lounge helpmate Don Was, and newcomers the Dust Brothers (Beck, the Beastie Boys) and Danny Saber (Black Grape), Bridges rocks out of the gate with the ballsy classic-Stones riffing of "Flip the Switch," wherein Jagger suggests that he needs turning on. "Three black eyes and a busted nose," he sings. "Pick me up, baby, I'm ready to go." From there, he swaggers from alleycat whispers in "Anybody Seen My Baby" and "Out of Control" to soulful crooning in the self-pitying "Already Over Me" to cock-rock confidence in the fickle "Too Tight." Richards checks in with some of the stronger songs: the reggaefied "You Don't Have to Mean It" and the soulful "Thief in the Night." The album's powerful finale, "How Can I Stop," is a gruff, tear-stained Richards tune that seems to be vying for a position among the pantheon of Stones ballads like "Memory Motel."

Although Bridges has its quota of hard rockers, much of the material here – like that of the Stones' underappreciated 1976 album Black and Blue – is slow-paced, with pensive lyrics that explore themes of betrayal and domestic upheaval. In the desperate "Anybody Seen My Baby," Jagger asks, "Has she disappeared? Has she really gone for good?" Then there's the pleading of "Low Down" ("I just want to know where I stand"), the emotional insecurity of "Already Over Me" ("I'm so hurt, so confused/I've been burned; I've been bruised") and the brute anger of "Gunface" ("I taught her all she knows; I taught her how to lie/I taught her everything; I'm gonna teach her how to cry").

Along with the pangs of jilted love, the decadent Jagger of old appears, straddling the line between heaven and hell in "Saint of Me." Over a warm gospel melody and a cool Dust Brothers drum loop, he sings, "I do believe in miracles, and I do want to save my soul," yet concludes, "You'll never make a saint of me." In the Beck-meets-Robert Johnson blues of "Might As Well Get Juiced" (which might as well be aimed at Richards), Jagger gets bitingly sarcastic: "If you really wanna tear up your mind … you might as well get juiced."

The Stones can thank the Dust Brothers for giving Bridges its welcome surprises. Toward the end of "Anybody Seen My Baby," they throw in a sample of rapper Biz Markie. It's an insane juxtaposition of old-school hip-hop and new-school production values set against a classic midtempo Stones ballad – and it's just as effective as it is absurd. The Brothers' buzzing electronic effects in "Juiced" provide a nice cushion of sound for Jagger's ragged vocals and moaning harmonica, and Ronnie Wood's raw slide guitar; aside from that touch, the song's fuzzy, gritty sound harks back to the Stones' stripped-down-blues excursions on Exile on Main St. ("Ventilator Blues") and Sticky Fingers ("You Gotta Move"). The Dust Brothers' sensibility extends to other songs, too, such as "Gunface," produced live in the studio by Saber, in which Charlie Watts' legendary rock-solid beat sounds like it was electronically looped.

Not everything comes off so seamlessly. Jagger gets maudlin on the acoustic ballad "Always Suffering," and on "Too Tight," Richards resorts to pedestrian bar-band licks. But two out of 13 ain't bad. Most of Bridges' songs come off feral without sounding forced, contemporary without succumbing to modern-rock trendiness. It's the Stones we loved back in the day, the Stones who made albums that were neither too self-consciously up-to-date nor too giddily nostalgic. Now we can really be satisfied.

From The Archives Issue 770: October 2, 1997