Do we ask too much of the Rolling Stones? Here they are with Dirty Work, their umpteenth American album since 1964 — actually their twenty-first, not counting greatest-hits compilations, EPs and live recordings — and they're still making rock that crunches and snickers and yowls. Is that enough? Through twenty-four years, the Stones have been low-class, high-class, crude, tony, showbizzy, uppity, smarmy, careerist and more diversely ironic than any other band. And they've taught everyone since the baby boom how to listen to rock — with affection, cynicism and both feet on the dance floor. When Mick Jagger sings, "Hear the voice of experience," in Dirty Work's "Hold Back," he ain't kidding.
The Stones' music has sniffed at every trend from psychedelia to disco, yet it's gone nowhere slowly; it's still basically the same warped Chicago blues they started with (especially on Dirty Work in "Had It With You"), plus a little reggae. Amid ups and downs, they've always known how to make a solid rock record in ways Mr. Mister or the Pet Shop Boys could never imagine. Yet every time the Stones get around to releasing an album, we expect them to do more — to take us by surprise, make us laugh and gawk, tell us what the hell is going on.
Dirty Work does that, but only now and then; it's more like a product than a statement, although it's a little of both. With "Winning Ugly" and "Dirty Work," this is the Stones album for the yuppie era, defining — and defying — the complacent nastiness of the mid-1980s as "Gimme Shelter" caught the crumbling hopes of the late Sixties and early Seventies. "I wrap my conscience up," Jagger spits out on "Winning Ugly." "I wanna win that cup and get my money, baby"; this tune won't be on the party tape at the business-school reunion. "Dirty Work" takes an extra ironic flip. Addressed to some hypothetical "you" who will "sit on your ass till your work is done" by someone else, the song runs, "You're a user, I hate ya." Is the song about the audience that depends on the Stones for its sleaze quotient? About the record company? Or the Stones themselves, well-documented users of people and substances?
I wish more of Dirty Work had such fine-tuned ambiguity. As a whole, the album's music and lyrics just don't stack up against Beggar's Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street or Undercover; it's solid, not spectacular. Each side feels incomplete; it sounds like it was made on deadline.
Maybe it was. Dirty Work, the first group album in the Stones' big-bucks CBS Records deal (following Jagger's misfire solo album, She's the Boss), openly advertises its corporate character with art-directed MTV colors on its cover, the band's first lyric sheet ever in the United States and a name coproducer, Steve Lillywhite, who joins Glimmer Twins Jagger and Richards. Lillywhite doesn't give the album the booming drum tone he's known for, but the beat sometimes gets more metronomic than Charlie Watts's usual bedrock thump; while the credits don't say who did what, studio drummer Anton Fig does show up on the list. And unlike most Stones tracks, which give the illusion of a live band bashing away, a few songs sound cobbled together on tape — especially "Hold Back." Even with Lillywhite on knobs, Dirty Work doesn't sound overly slick like Tattoo You; it's got the old raunch.
Still, "Fight" and "Had It with You" seem left over from 1983's Undercover, the Stones' rudest, bleakest and most political statement on how sex meets violence. That album made connections between private S&M and public power madness; by contrast, Dirty Work just plays its punch-her-out songs for shock value, taboo breaking by the numbers. "One Hit (to the Body)," the album's second single, repeats the ever popular equation of love and addiction. Then there's an anti-World War III number, "Back to Zero," which features Chuck Leavell's swaggering keyboards; a ballad for Keith Richards to sing, "Sleep Tonight"; and two covers (including the first single, "Harlem Shuffle").
Dirty Work could be better — more unified, less posed. But that's judging it against the Stones catalog. On its own terms, Dirty Work has its share of memorable moments. "Sleep Tonight," which may be addressed to a drug casualty (or is it an ex-lover?), is just about as creepy as Keith Richards intends it to be; "Harlem Shuffle" leers in the finely jaded tradition of "Stray Cat Blues." And if, as the prealbum publicity suggested, Dirty Work was put together primarily by the Stones' guitar axis of Richards and Ron Wood (Keith sits at the center of the album cover, too), it shows in the wondrous snarl of guitar parts all over the album.
Unlike most of the hook-mad bands of the 1980s, the Stones assume their listeners can handle more than one guitar line at a time. You can take your pick: singing single notes in "Sleep Tonight," reggae and blues and studio-perfect hooks in "Winning Ugly," overlapping country twangs in "Dirty Work," sharpened rhythm chops and careening slides in "One Hit." I don't find much true grit in the lyrics to "Hold Back" or "One Hit" or "Had It with You," but the guitars cut through to some rock & roll essence.
As the years wear on, it must get harder to be the legendary Rolling Stones, that famous band of decadent badasses. One week Jagger smiles for photographers at his baby's christening; another week he's in the studio singing, "Gonna pulp you to a mass of bruises," trying to put some gumption into it. Maybe it's all some megaconcept about lack of ethics and insincerity. To me, though, Jagger's She's the Boss, with its cartoonishly cocky lyrics, and Dirty Work both suggest a 1980s identity crisis within the Stones — not as musicians but as pop guerrillas, exiles on Main Street. While "Winning Ugly" and "Dirty Work" show they're still alert, the rest of the album fudges, giving old answers to new questions. I'll still dance to it — and I'll still expect more next time.