History has proven it unwise to jump to conclusions about Rolling Stones albums. At first Sticky Fingers seemed merely a statement of doper hipness on which the Stones (in Greil Marcus’ elegant phrase) “rattled drugs as if they were maracas.” But drugs wound up serving a figurative as well as a literal purpose and the album became broader and more ambiguous with each repeated listening.
At first, Exile on Main Street seemed a terrible disappointment, with its murky, mindless mixes and concentration on the trivial. Over time, it emerged as a masterful study in poetic vulgarity. And if neither of the albums had eventually grown on me thematically, the music would have finally won me over anyway.
Now Goats Head Soup stands as the antithesis of Exile — the Stones never worry about contradicting themselves — and it is a wise move, for it would have been suicidal to Exile‘s conceits any further. Compared to the piling on of one raunchy number on top of another, Soup is a romantic work, with an unmistakable thread of life-affirming pragmatisms running through it. It is set apart not only from Exile, but every past Stones’ LP, by its emphasis on the ballad. Its three key songs — “Angie,” “Comin’ Down Again,” and “Winter” — are suffused with melancholy. But of the five rockers, only “Star Star” (“Starfucker”) rings out with classic Stones sass. The others exist either more as changes of pace or as commentary on the album’s larger mood, rather than as autonomous works.
And yet for all its differences, Soup sustains some significant continuities with its immediate predecessors. With all its rocker energy, it was the personal, subjective songs on Sticky Fingers, like “Wild Horses” and “Moonlight Mile,” that finally lingered in my mind. And for all its thunder, Exile contained in whatever lyrics were audible, a very personal sense of weariness and confusion. “Tumbling Dice,” “Let It Loose” and “Torn and Frayed” were sung with such pent-up emotion that their powerful band tracks flew outward from the vocal, as if the direct result of inspiration drawn from it.
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As usual, on Soup the Stones continue to work within existing frameworks, redefining and personalizing everything they touch. In this case, they make brilliant use of the styles of some proteges — Van Morrison on “Winter” and Gram Parsons on “Comin’ Down Again” — while picking up a few things from groups as disparate as the Allman Brothers Band and War. The string arrangements are again close in texture to Elton John’s. But they use all of their influences in a fashion superior to the current recordings of their originators. Other artists have built careers on modes the Stones have kicked away without a backward look.
The Stones succeed because they rarely forget their purpose — the creation of rock & roll drama. It is for that reason that they can move from the snow-white Americana of “Comin’ Down Again” into the urban R&B of “Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” without the batting of an eyelash — theirs or ours. When they are uncertain of their purpose — as on “Dancin’ With Mr. D.” — they can be hopelessly silly. That track is the weakest opener ever so positioned on one of their albums, and they’ve never performed with less conviction.
But it is strictly one of a kind, for after it Soup emerges as a consistent piece of work, even if its classic moments are confined to four songs. “100 Years Ago” is the album’s real introduction and contains in equal portions the two basic strains of the album: the churning, repetitive R&B of the fast songs and the solemn melancholy of the ballads. In the song’s linear structure, each element is consecutively isolated and focused on. The strains, like the album’s songs, coexist without blending. The R&B eventually suggests violence and irrationality while the slow music suggests reason and vulnerability. In the process of juxtaposing opposites, the Stones make a partly practical and partly moral choice — one of survival over dissipation.
The first ballad, “Comin’ Down Again,” is closely related to “Wild Horses,” from Keith’s frayed but loving vocal to the Burritos-related broad metaphor at its center:
Comin’ down again (sky fallin’ down again)
Comin’ down again (sky fallin’ down again)
Where are all my friends?
Comin’ down again,
On the ground again.
If there’s a moment on the album in which sadness outweighs hope, it’s in Keith’s voice. This feeling, combined with the fact that his distinctive rhythm guitar — one of the seven wonders of rock & roll — is subdued, disguised or inaudible through much of the album, makes me uneasy.
Between “Comin’ Down Again” and “Angie” sits “Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker),” a broadly drawn third-person narrative in dramatic juxtaposition to the songs surrounding it. It relates an incident of big-city violence hardly uncommon in the real world, but jarring in this context. It works as both thematic and stylistic counterpoint. The agony resulting from a failed love relationship is still ultimately affirmative, and it’s relatively easy to bear compared to the agony incurred by some random violent act emanating from a stranger.
There is a crucial substitution of vocal chorus for horn parts (although the latter are used in a different context) that is both an explicit rejection of Exile‘s mode and an attempt on the album’s fiercest song to rehumanize the band through the substitution of voice for the mechanical force of instruments. As on several of the other fast songs, the lead is a Leslie-amplified wah-wah guitar (no track credits are offered — is it Mick Taylor?) that sounds both unearthly and more contemporary than classic Stones style and puts new stress on Mick T. He’s not yet the master Richard is, but he can play in the traditional Stones manner (“Sway”) and add a powerful new dimension to it (his solos on “Love in Vain” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” during the band’s ’72 concerts). On Soup, he relies more on discipline than imagination, except for his exquisite solo on “Winter.” He is obviously coming into his own but I can’t help missing Keith, even when I sense he must be around somewhere.
“Angie” will inevitably be the most durable and well-loved song on the album. There are several reasons for its significance: a vocal of practically unprecedented conviction by Jagger, the lovely interplay of strings and single electric guitar that dramatizes the romantic core of the song, and a consummate piano performance by Nicky Hopkins. But the key is in the tune itself, as emotionally complex as it is lyrically straightforward.
It contrasts the traditional view of romance (and its mystical principal of adoration), with the more recently conceived notion of pragmatism in relationships. The singer has a simultaneous and irreconcilable investment in both values, and they’re at war within him. Haunted by Angie’s image, he tells the mystic in him that the conditions for romance are still present. But reason patiently answers that despite their efforts, it won’t work. It wins the struggle, but every so often the voice burns through the velvet lining.
The singer’s lingering belief in mystery is manifested in brief moments of passion and in a sense of guilt that can’t be rationalized. Thus, all his statements seem to come out questions and he asks them as much of himself as of Angie. The one stand he takes is shaky, indeed: “They can’t say we never tried,” is inevitably followed by the understood “Can they?”
The song’s depth of feeling is enhanced by a barely audible second vocal that may have been a reference track they couldn’t get rid of or purely intentional. It seems to come from a great void completely cut off from the rest of the song. The sense of separation it so subtly suggests is a perfectly apt comment on the theme. And every facet of the song is like that, making it one of the most completely satisfying of all Rolling Stones performances.
Side two begins modestly with “Silver Train,” a rock & roll song with a pre-rock flavor. The Stones’ approach is like their treatment of “Stop Breaking Down,” one of Exile‘s sleepers: lots of whiny slide guitar and harp. They also emphasize, with their ragged ensemble shouts, the song’s appealing chorus. “Train” is the best of the album’s secondary songs.
“Hide Your Love,” dominated by Jagger’s crude piano and blackest vocal, continues the rustic blues flavor of “Train.” It is the descendant of “Prodigal Son” and “You’ve Gotta Move,” while “Winter” is the offspring of the incandescent “Moonlight Mile,” although it seems also influenced by Van Morrison’s “Listen to the Lion” and “Almost Independence Day.” Morrison’s ideas are in evidence in Jagger’s vocal, which moves from a reading of patterned verses into improvisations. As he sings, the Oriental-styled guitar of “Moonlight” and an elegant string section swirl around him. And as Mick finds the crucial line to climax the piece with — “I’m gonna wrap my coat around you” — the surrounding track is blowing fierce, icy winds right across him.
After “Can You Hear the Music?,” a philosophical song that expresses a belief in the mystical power of music from the Pipes of Pan right up to rock & roll, comes the fabulous “Star Star” as if to prove the point of its predecessor. “Starfucker”‘s surface nastiness is belied by the sheer exultation with which it’s played. The hallowed Chuck Berry riffs have never sounded fresher or more energetic. And those unswerving drums, ringing guitars and straining voices are all daring us to try and keep from moving to the music.
There are too many secondary songs on Goats Head Soup to rate it an ultimate Rolling Stones album. The content-defying title expresses the group’s uncertainty about its performance. But those three great ballads place the album among their most intimate and emotionally absorbing work. At the same time, “Starfucker” maintains the stature of the Stones as grand masters of the rock & roll song. If they’ve played it safe this time, their caution has nevertheless reaped some rewards. Soup stands right next to Mott, the thematically similar LP of the Stones’ brightest students, as the best album of 1973. For me, its deepening and unfolding over the coming months will no doubt rate as one of the year’s richest musical experiences.