With his venturesome second solo LP, Primitive Cool, Mick Jagger has finally reasserted his voice of rage and disdain — or at least he has managed to reinvoke it as much as may be possible for an artist so worldly and unsentimental.
For more than a generation, Jagger has peacocked his way across rock & roll bandstands, singing songs of violence, carnality, contempt and hubris with such a convincing leer that for many of us the singer seemed indivisible from the sentiments of his songs. But for roughly fifteen years now, Jagger has seemed increasingly to be trading hard-bitten intelligence and passion for something uncomfortably akin to bluster and bravado, making for a series of hackneyed albums and overly preening stage performances that reeked of self-parody. There was little amid the hyperbole and posturing that followed Exile on Main Street as affecting or memorable as Jagger's singing on "Fool to Cry" and "Memory Motel" — two mid-Seventies songs sung in the voice of a man losing the very dreams he could never afford to lose. It was a yearning and vulnerable style that we had never before heard from Jagger — the first voice that proved as persuasive as the sneering, fearful one that fueled his best 1960s work. And for a long time, it seemed to be a voice that we might never hear again.
Primitive Cool marks a rather surprising transfiguration — perhaps the most sweeping work of artistic self-redefinition by a major pop figure since Bob Dylan turned homey on Nashville Skyline or at least since Lou Reed revealed his lovey-dovey side on The Blue Mask. Whether one should view this turn as a sign of genuine personal change is another matter, because, truth be told, there has always been a good deal less of the real Mick Jagger in his music than many of us might care to realize. At the same time, Primitive Cool probably makes more biographical and emotional sense than anything Jagger has worked on since Some Girls — which, in retrospect, was a fairly mean-humored, self-serving effort that aimed to hit hard at all those things (mainly women and punks) that had temporarily made Jagger's world a little less manageable.
In word and spirit, Primitive Cool is about as contrary to Some Girls as you can imagine. Indeed, like Dylan's and Reed's change-of-heart milestones, Primitive Cool would appear to be the work of a man who has taken a long, tough look at the life that he has been leading and the world that he is living in and has decided to reexamine some of his values. It is tempting to believe that Jagger intends this as a heartfelt personal statement. Certainly it fits in with what we presume to know about the singer at this point: namely, that he is now something of a family man and that he no longer seems fully enamored of the Rolling Stones' raw-toned approach to life and music. But perhaps it's simply more accurate to say that in contrast to his perfunctory solo debut, She's the Boss, Primitive Cool sounds like a record Jagger had to leave the Stones to make. The melodies that he's produced by himself have more power and motion than most of what he has fashioned with Richards in over a decade, while his singing exhibits the sort of diversity and commitment that appeared to elude him shortly after Sticky Fingers.
On Primitive Cool, some of the album's most desperate-seeming lyrics are also braced by some of the most straightforwardly exultant music that Jagger has ever crafted. In "Throwaway," for example, Jeff Beck's raveup guitar lines and drummer Simon Phillips and bassist Doug Wimbish's brawny rhythmic structure set the way for a song that seems ready to paint the town red. Instead, Jagger launches into an almost begging admission of romantic need that's all the more affecting for its self-incrimination. "I've played the fool, I've played the clown/I'm an easy lover when I come to town," he sings at the outset, playing up to his popular image as an eager womanizer. Yet there's a twist here: the singer has fallen hard for a woman who, he now understands, has the strength — and maybe the will — to walk out on him. Suddenly, the idea of returning to his former sleep-around life seems like a nightmare. "If you leave me," he sings in a voice that sounds half-beguiling and half-mad, "I'll go frantic/With cheap champagne, brief affairs and backstage love . . . I gave you the best years of my life/Don't you kick me in the gutter." The man who sang "Fool to Cry" more than a decade ago returns to explore the same themes of heartache and regret — only this time he knows enough to stave off the harm.
But there's more to Primitive Cool than merely the notion of preserving the singer's romantic world. In the title track he begins to consider the world of his children and muses over what the scene might be like on that day in the not so distant future when they confront him with questions about his image and his involvement in the events of the last generation: "Did you walk cool in the sixties daddy?/Did you fight in the war?/Or did you chase all the whores on the rock and roll rumble? . . . Did you break all the laws that were ready to crumble?" Anybody who hears this litany of inquiries already knows the answer — as much as anybody, Jagger helped shape the ethics of a generation in transition — but the singer is either too cool or too savvy to boast. Instead, he simply advises his kids to explore their own times with as much passion as they can muster, which is a rather neat way of refusing to cater to all the current nostalgia for the Sixties. A few songs later, though, in the rueful "War Baby," Jagger considers the violent future that his children may well end up facing. He imagines the cacophony and the dread of that day, and for the first time since "Gimme Shelter," his vocal wavers somewhere between rage and prayer.
But don't get the idea that Jagger has turned exactly, um, softhearted. In fact, some of Primitive Cool's kickiest moments are also some of its nastiest, especially the stormy "Kow Tow" ("The wicked lay stones in my path," sings Jagger in an allusion to the band he no longer loves) and the Exile-style "Shoot Off Your Mouth," which seems to be a gender-bending kiss-off to Keith Richards ("I was a rising star/You hitched your wagon next to mine. . . . Who are you to shoot off your mouth?"). But Jagger's most affecting message to Richards, as well as the LP's loveliest song, is "Party Doll," a Pogues-style track that mixes countryish sentiment with haunting Gaelic instrumentation. "You used to love to honky-tonk," sings Jagger in a rueful twang, "But now those dancing days are over/You used to be my number one/But now you vanished in the ozone."
In a sense, it's just a love song: a farewell to the love or friendship you can neither live with nor live without. But it also turns out to be something more: a reminder of what Jagger may have sacrificed to make music this strong and resourceful. Whether this feat is worth the loss of the Rolling Stones — if that's the way things should tumble — is a hard question, and probably nobody will have to examine that possibility more closely than Jagger himself. If Primitive Cool turns out to be what it feels like — Mick Jagger's long-overdue rejuvenation — then whatever this cocky icon makes of his future should concern anybody who ever respected his past.