When Mick Jagger begs, “Can’t you see that I’m human?” in “Just Another Night,” it gets your hopes up for She’s the Boss. What a setup: Almost twenty-three years into his career as lead singer, lyricist and point man for the Rolling Stones, Jagger has decided to make a solo album. Keith Richards, his longtime partner, collaborator and foil, shows up with just one songwriting credit; the rest of the Stones are nowhere to be heard. Is the man who has willingly symbolized everything your parents feared about rock & roll finally going to show us a side that was hidden in the group?
Not exactly. True, there are differences between She’s the Boss and the ever more ironic, ever more complicated output of the Rolling Stones. Even with Jagger’s out-front singing, in that remarkable accent that melds upper- and lower-class Britspeak with some imaginary Deep South drawl, no one is likely to mistake She’s the Boss for a Stones album. But Jagger has opted for a hot dance record rather than a confession. For all the curiosity it invites, She’s the Boss is the continuation of the Stones saga by other means.
Here, in a nutshell, are the differences:
You can make out all the lyrics.
There’s no tangle of guitars in the midrange — just space, bass and assorted clean sounds and electronic snorts.
The album is on the Stones’ new label, Columbia, which is going to do its damnedest to make a profit on their huge contract.
And speaking of marketing, the songs are also available in a full-length video directed by Julien Temple.
But the more Mick changes, the more Mick remains the same. Like the last six or seven Rolling Stones albums, this is the work of a character who can’t decide whether or not he likes his self-made cartoon. With Undercover, Mick had me believing that he and the Stones were reconsidering, almost repenting, their old equations of sex and violence and fun; that they did, indeed, think there was too much blood.
She’s the Boss steps back into coyness. First we get the new Jagger, downright abject in “Just Another Night,” claiming to wonder whether he can get it up again for anything but true love, while the music stomps away implacably. The title cut and “1/2 a Loaf” do the Stones’ latest rhetorical flip, reversing the polarities of the old sexism by putting the woman on top. On the other side of the boy-girl dialectic, “Lonely at the Top” and “Secrets” take revenge on go-getter women; “Hard Woman” does a combination play, loving her and leaving her anyway. Meanwhile, “Lucky in Love” and “Running Out of Luck” update the low-life antiromance of “Shattered.”
The Stones, and Jagger as their spokesman, have always chronicled the ways love and power tangle — from “Back Street Girl” to “She Was Hot.” On She’s the Boss, Jagger is as articulate as ever about who gets fucked and who gets fucked over. It’s possible to thread a story line through the songs: an aging star, an ambitious young woman, romance that gets derailed into prostitution and dominance-submission. In fact, each song stakes out its own situation and plot line, giving Temple plenty to work with for his video.
Die-hard Stones fans know that the band’s lyrics aren’t the nexus; tunes and attitude are. Yet given the fact that he could take all sorts of chances and still get the big push from CBS, Jagger has made nothing but platinum-mainstream choices: production by Bill Laswell/Material (Herbie Hancock) and Nile Rodgers (David Bowie, Madonna); snarling guitar solos by Jeff Beck (Tina Turner, Rod Stewart); Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare in the rhythm section. All that’s missing is a cameo by Prince.
For these songs, though, Jagger has made the right decisions. With the exception of “Hard Woman” (which hits the Van Morrison vein that “Winter” did on Goat’s Head Soup), he’s written catch phrases and riffs — not exactly melodies. And if anyone can take a riff and gnaw on it until it gives up the juice, Laswell and Rodgers can.
The grooves are basic Jagger rock, not as cool or metallic as Laswell on “Rockit,” nor as jazzy as Nile Rodgers on Let’s Dance or Like a Virgin. In their own ways, though, Laswell’s six songs and Rodgers’ three (all coproduced by Jagger) are muscular and tricky.
She’s the Boss overflows with production ideas: Herbie Hancock’s garageband organ on “Lonely at the Top”; drummer Anton Fier’s metal noises and Eddie Martinez’ guitar chatter on “She’s the Boss”; Sly Dunbar’s goosing, offbeat accents everywhere; Daniel Ponce’s bata drums in stereo on “Running Out of Luck”; the neo-Chic, fits-and-starts funk of “Turn the Girl Loose”; the goofball inserts of “Just Another Night”; and Jeff Beck’s amazing solos every time he charges into the mix. Jagger sings, talks and postures as well as ever, too: listen to the way he faces a “royal flush” in “Lucky in Love.”
Still, unlike a major Stones album, which yields more ideas and ironies as you live with it, She’s the Boss just gets more danceable. It doesn’t challenge the legend of Mick the Stone, doesn’t get outrageous or scary the way Undercover did, doesn’t leave me with much more than a chuckle and a beat. It’s an album from one of rock’s nastiest, wittiest, most unsettling characters — and for all its nifty musical details, it sheds more heat than light on Mick Jagger.