Like the thermographic photos of the Rolling Stones on the album cover, Emotional Rescue is a portfolio of burned-out cases and fire trails. High-contrast patterns of familiar outlines and blackened patches where the heat has burned and gone, these photographs — like pictures of corpses from some holocaust — are practically unrecognizable. As far as the music goes, familiar is an understatement. There's hardly a melody here you haven't heard from the Stones before. but then that's nothing new. Me. I'd rather be reminded of Between the Buttons by the venal, high-speed whine of "She's So Cold" than revisit "Miss You" outtakes by way of the interminable "Dance (Pt. 1)," but there are plenty of rooms available at the current memory motel.
Still, the Stones' sound is so identifiable that it's hard to remember how carefully they've developed it: the just-shrillenough blend of harmonica and sax, the similarly gruff treble in their forced high harmonies. And I should tell you about the changes. Mick Jagger sings in falsetto, someone who sounds like a bad Bob Dylan (my God, it's Keith Richards!) takes a snuffling lead vocal and special guest Max Romeo does a bird chant. But you know as well as I do that nobody talks about the musical innovations on a Stones or Dylan record unless the artists themselves have run out of things to say.
One thing's for sure: Emotional Rescue isn't the newsbreak that 1978's Some Girls was. The Rolling Stones haven't suddenly gone salsa (in spite of some south-of-the-border horns). Old hands haven't stepped out of early retirement to show cocky young punks exactly how best to offend, and radio censors won't have a case. In place of the ethnic and sexual slurs of the earlier LP's title tune (meant, I've always thought, as a sendup of liberal etiquette), Emotional Rescue extends an open invitation to foreigners: "She could be Roumanian/She could be Bulgarian/She could be Albanian.../Send her to me."
If the Stones have adopted a gentlemanly attitude these days, their prime concerns — sex and money — are the proletariat's, too. But when Mick Jagger is desperate enough to mail-order lovers wholesale, you can't help but wonder who's supposed to be rescuing whom. At least he has fun with the idea. "I will be your knight in shining armor," he intones at the end of the title track, sounding like a high-priced fantasy gigolo gone silly with the strain. After nearly eighteen years of well-paid nights and approximately twenty-seven albums of acted out desires, maybe these guys can't help getting lust and cash confused.
"Summer Romance" — a you've-heard-it-before, snot-nosed schoolgirl version of "Maggie May" — starts out randy and ends up simply insolvent: "I need money so bad/I can't be your mama/I don't want to be your dad." In "Emotional Rescue," the distress that the waiting damsel feels is strictly financial ("... you can't get out/You're just a poor girl in a rich man's house"). Even the blandly funky, mostly instrumental "Dance (Pt. 1)" pauses in mid-boogie for a couple of rich-man/poor-man jokes. Indeed, so much of this record is obsessed with having and not having that the rescue operation ostensibly taking place seems like it should be aimed at those whose emotions were exchanged for hard currency long ago.
Still, judging by Emotional Rescue's language, the Rolling Stones — Jagger and Richards at least — are feeling as vulnerable as zombies can. Never ones to be self-deprecating, they've translated that feeling into global terms. A jilted Jagger fools around (literally) with foreign affairs in "Send It to Me," proposing an energetic redevelopment program — a sort of self-help sexual capitalism: "She may work in a factory/Right next door to me." In "Indian Girl" (where the Stones meet mariachi), Central American political realities are seriously, if rather vaguely, considered: "Mister Gringo, my father he ain't no Ché Guevara/He's fighting the war in the streets of Masaya." And in the agonizingly slow blues, "Down in the Hole," the black markets, foreign zones and diplomatic immunities of modern rebellion merely become so much barbed wire in a private war of emotional imperialism: "You'll be ... down in the gutter, begging for cigarettes, begging forgiveness ... / Down in the hole after digging the trenches, looking for comfort...."
You could legitimately writhe at the idea of a sleek and well-fed Mick Jagger preaching patience to a starving Nicaraguan child ("Life just goes on getting harder and harder" is the extent of his advice). But so much of Emotional Rescue seems vague and not quite real — life seen from very far away — that it's hard to take the LP seriously. Even when it comes to simple desire, the Stones act like tourists in a foreign country. "In the night, I was crying like a child," Jagger confesses in the middle of "Emotional Rescue," and his voice sounds as estranged and bewildered as the echoing horn.
People will tell you that even in the studio, the Stones have struck a nonalignment pact, entering and leaving separately on different days. Ships that pass in the night, it's said, seldom tootle in tune unless their radar is very, very good. Once, of course, the Rolling Stones' was the finest in the world. With each new album, you had the sense that they were looking over your shoulder, pointing an ironic finger at your most private fantasies. This was what made that devil pose so convincing, even to nonhallucinating brains. The Stones really did seem to have foreknowledge of our causes and concerns. And the mystique of their precognition made rock & roll seem — for a while — to be the intellectual and emotional collectivism that would rule the world.
That was a long time ago. But even two years back. Some Girls still had a good bit of impudent, anticipatory spark — or at least an experienced. I told-you-so air that was second best. With its fusion of redneck rudeness and elegant, discofied languor (and its honking, conspicuous New York orientation). Some Girls placed itself near the front of the Old Guard. The stubborn self-respect of "Before They Make Me Run," the tough but good-humored sexual irony of "Beast of Burden" and the impeccable yet slightly melancholy arrogance of "Miss You" suggested a prime of life in which hearts and minds could survive against both power and possessions and continue to make rock & roll. These songs seemed to be saying that wit, anger and the ability to move fast would keep you alive. And Sugar Blue's harmonica gave you all the tenderness you needed.
Nowadays, Sugar Blue is buried in the mix, and there's a weird sort of powerlessness in even the funniest numbers. ("She's So Cold," "Send It to Me" and the title cut are Emotional Rescue's standouts.) Lovers leave or turn reluctant for no explicable reason. And for all the Stones' tongue-in-cheek insistence that ladies are commodities to be mail-ordered or tinkered with, it doesn't seem to make them any easier to control. ("I tried rewiring her," Mick Jagger sings in "She's So Cold." "I think her engine is permanently stalled.") Once I would have believed that such irony meant Jagger knew better, but now I think he's hoping his feelings of powerlessness will pass for cynicism.
Sometimes when I turn up the volume, looking for the connection I can't believe isn't there, I imagine that the Stones have actually died and this word-perfect, classic-sounding, spiritless record is a message from the grave. That would be the only irony that could save Emotional Rescue, the only vantage point that would explain the Rolling Stones' insulated view of wide horizons, their passionless disillusionment, their foreigner's confusion about sex, money and worldly possessions. Otherwise, unless the Stones are born again or something, I'm afraid that people won't be calling them survivors much longer.