Nothing reinvigorates Sixties icons like having something to prove. In the past few years the reverence typically shown both the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan has worn perilously thin. The Stones' last two albums, Undercover and Dirty Work — not to mention Mick Jagger's solo recordings — ranged from bad to ordinary, and Keith Richards's bitter public baiting of Jagger suggested that this particular twain might never again productively meet. In Dylan's case, the most obvious message conveyed by the shoddy, almost willfully unfocused nature of his recent work — specifically Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove — was that he had simply stopped caring about making records.
Now, in the summer of love of the past, the Stones and Dylan have weighed in with albums that signal renewed conviction and reactivated sense of purpose. Steel Wheels rocks with a fervor that renders the Stones' North American tour an enticing prospect indeed, while Oh Mercy explores moral concerns and matters of the heart with a depth and seriousness Dylan has not demonstrated since Desire. Deep-sixing nostalgia, the Stones and Dylan have made vital albums of, for and about their time.
It's not hard to read "Mixed Emotions," the most assured Stones single since "Start Me Up," as Jagger's measured, characteristically pragmatic — and guardedly conciliatory — reply to the verbal pounding he took in the round of interviews Richards gave after the guitarist released his solo album, Talk Is Cheap, last year. "Button your lip, baby," counsels Jagger over a swinging guitar groove in the song's opening line, before offering to "bury the hatchet/Wipe out the past." In a bid for some understanding from his band mate, Jagger sings, "You're not the only one/With mixed emotions/You're not the only one/That's feeling lonesome."
The feral rocker "Hold On to Your Hat" seems to sketch some of the problems of excess that threatened to drive Jagger out of the Stones. "We'll never make it," Jagger sings angrily, as Richards unleashes a flamethrower riff. "Don't you fake it/You're getting loaded/I'm getting goaded." Never to be outdone, Richards ends the album on a lovely, elegiac note with his ballad "Slipping Away," about his own brand of mixed emotions. "All I want is ecstasy/But I ain't getting much/Just getting off on misery," the Glimmer Twins harmonize on the song's chorus, and then Richards returns to sing the concluding verse. "Well, it's just another song," he sings. "But it's slipping away."
Jagger's and Richards's conflicting emotions fuel full-tilt rock & roll on "Sad Sad Sad" and "Rock and a Hard Place," while "Continental Drift," with its north-African feel, and the elegant "Blinded by Love" extend the Stones' musical reach further than it has gone in some time. Jagger miraculously avoids camp posturing in his singing, and the rest of the band — Richards, Ron Wood, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, augmented by keyboardists Chuck Leavell and Matt Clifford, a horn section and backup singers — plays with an ensemble flair more redolent of the stage than the studio. Jagger, Richards and their coproducer, Chris Kimsey, strike an appropriate balance between up-to-date recording sheen and the Stones' inspired sloppiness.
All the ambivalence, recriminations, attempted rapprochement and psychological one-upmanship evident on Steel Wheels testify that the Stones are right in the element that has historically spawned their best music — a murky, dangerously charged environment in which nothing is merely what it seems. Against all odds, and at this late date, the Stones have once again generated an album that will have the world dancing to deeply troubling, unresolved emotions.
Oh Mercy can perhaps best be thought of as a collaboration between Dylan and producer Daniel Lanois. Lanois, who most recently produced the Neville Brothers' extraordinary album Yellow Moon, hooked Dylan up with members of the Nevilles' band — guitarist Brian Stoltz, bassist Tony Hall, drummer Willie Green and percussionist Cyril Neville — and fashioned evocative, atmospheric soundscapes that elicit every nuance of meaning from Dylan's songs while never overwhelming them. Dylan's lyric style on Oh Mercy — a plain-spoken directness with rich folkloric and Biblical shadings — finds an ideal setting in the dark, open textures of Lanois's sonic weave.
The thematic context for Oh Mercy is defined in "Political World," a churning rocker stricken with anxiety and despair, and "Everything Is Broken," a rollicking catalog of psychic dislocation. The cultural breakdowns chronicled in those songs are mirrored on a more personal level in the dreamy ballads "Most of the Time," a love song of taunting regret in Dylan's characteristic manner, and the self-examining "What Good Am I."
Haunting the center of the album is "Man in the Long Black Coat," a chilling narrative ballad suffused with a medieval sense of sin, death, illicit sexuality and satanic power. Sung by Dylan in a husky, tormented whisper, the song tells of a woman who leaves her man for a demonic stranger, prompting a series of reflections on the nature of conscience, religious faith and emotional commitment. As the spare musical background evokes a universe frighteningly devoid of absolute meaning, Dylan sings, "There are no mistakes in life, some people say/And it's true sometimes, you could see it that way/People don't live or die, people just float/She went with the man in a long black coat." Against such radical uncertainty Dylan holds, in songs like "Where Teardrops Fall" and "Ring Them Bells," to a faith that is millenarian but far more generous than the one he has articulated on his more overtly Christian records.
Dylan also renews his ongoing, if recently interrupted, dialogue with his audience on the last two songs of the album, "What Was It You Wanted" and "Shooting Star." Seemingly about a former lover, "What Was It You Wanted" sets forth a series of chiding questions about expectations — expectations that the singer has failed to meet, implicitly because of their unreasonable nature. They are the sort of questions Dylan has been raising in songs as long ago as "It Ain't Me Babe."
Then, on "Shooting Star," a kind of restless farewell, Dylan sings, "I saw a shooting star tonight, and I thought of me/If I was still the same, if I ever became what you wanted me to be." Never one to pander to his audience, Dylan has often gone to the other extreme, eluding his listeners' desires in a manner that has bordered on the perverse. The Rolling Stones, too, carry the burden of their own history; the question of how a rock & roll band can carry its music into adulthood is part of the struggle that nearly broke the band up.
But fans have a right to their desires, too, and frequently an artist's defensiveness about the narrowness of audience taste is really a response to work even the artist fears is second-rate. The best defense of exacting audience demands is the straightforward fact that these great expectations derive from the artist's own work. Another is that those demands are sometimes met by work that is both challenging and satisfying — as these splendid new albums prove.