By now, the Rolling Stones have assumed something of the status of the blues in popular music — a vital force beyond time and fashion. Undercover, their twenty-third album (not counting anthologies and outtakes), reassembles, in the manner of mature masters of every art, familiar elements into exciting new forms. It is a perfect candidate for inclusion in a cultural time capsule: Should future generations wonder why the Stones endured so long at the very top of their field, this record offers just about every explanation. Here we have the world’s greatest rock & roll rhythm section putting out at maximum power; the reeling, roller-derby guitars at full roar; riffs that stick in the viscera, songs that seize the hips and even the heart; a singer who sounds serious again. Undercover is rock & roll without apologies.
There is a moment early on in “Too Tough,” a terrific song on the second side, that sums up all of the Stones’ extraordinary powers. With the guitars locked into a headlong riff and Mick Jagger hoarsely berating the woman who “screwed me down with kindness” and “suffocating love,” the track is already off to a hot start; but then Charlie Watts comes barreling in on tom-toms and boots the tune onto a whole new level of gut-punching brilliance. That the Stones are still capable of such exhilarating energy is cause enough for wondrous comment; that they are able to sustain such musical force over the course of an entire LP is rather astonishing. Undercover is the most impressive of the albums the group has released since its mid-Seventies career slump (the others being Some Girls, Emotional Rescue and 1981’s remarkable Tattoo You) because, within the band’s R&B-based limits, it is the most consistently and energetically inventive.
Although the hard-rock numbers that make up the bulk of the record have the Rolling Stones’ stamp all over them, they are also distinguished by a heightened creative freshness that recalls their song-rich 1967 LP, Between the Buttons (from which such numbers as “Too Tough” and the sentimentally salacious “She Was Hot” could almost pass as outtakes). The raw vitality of the performances is matched by the thorniness of the lyrics, which glimmer with all the usual veiled allusions and inscrutable ambiguities.
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When Jagger sings in “Tie You Up (The Pain of Love)” that “You get a rise from it/Feel the hot come dripping on your thighs from it,” and that “Women will die for it,” you might conclude that he’s just being provocative (or, alternatively, that he’s still the pathetic sexist asshole you always figured him for). But the song isn’t simply about male domination of women; it’s about the omnisexual oppressiveness of romantic obsession. Similarly, the black woman at the center of “She Was Hot” turns out to have been more than just a great lay — the simple sincerity of the singer’s “I hope we meet again” adds a sudden emotional resonance to what at first appears an empty-headed sex anthem — while the title of the sinuously slippery “Pretty Beat Up” refers not to the song’s female subject but to the singer’s condition since she left him. And in between the shout-along choruses of “All the Way Down,” where Jagger looks back on his beginnings and says, “I was king, Mr. Cool, just a snotty little fool” — and then slyly adds, “Like kids are now” — he sounds more self-aware than his detractors have ever given him credit for being.
This admission of emotional vulnerability, so far removed from the usual phallic strutting of most hard rock, is a familiar theme from at least the last two Stones albums. And while it coexists here with the indomitable self-assertion of “Too Tough” (“But in the end, you spat me out/You could not chew me up”), it also achieves its most childlike expression in Keith Richards’ unadorned declaration of love and hope, “Wanna Hold You.”
One suspects the Stones wouldn’t approve of all this rummaging around in their lyrics — they’ve never bothered to pose as poets, and their words have always melded with the music quite well. On Undercover, the music offers continuing proof of the band’s commitment to black music. There are numerous young performers in Britain today who are lauded for adopting the trappings of Tamla-Motown or the dance-tested beat of black disco and pop reggae, but the Stones have been covering this turf (and more originally, at that) for years. It is a happy irony that at least two of the central songs on this album are prime examples of their commitment to the now-resurgent notion of black pop primacy.
On the flamboyantly grisly “Too Much Blood,” they bring in Sugar Hill Records’ former horn section (a four-man unit called Chops) for a rough and rambling rap tune that shows they’ve been listening to more than the occasional Grand Master Flash twelve-inch. The horns, coupled with the rampant clatter of Moroccan percussionists Moustapha Cisse and Brahms Condoul, plus reggae stalwart Sly Dunbar on electronic drums, churn up a marvelous, murky funk. And when David Sanborn comes screaming up on solo sax and Jagger rides in on a descending riff, singing. “I wanna dance, I wanna sing, I wanna bust up everything,” the track transcends MTV-style racial considerations and emerges as a colorblind dance-floor hit.
And while there is a dark Jamaican dub groove running through “Feel on Baby,” a somewhat poignant lament, the dub sensibility crops up most strikingly on the title track and single, “Undercover of the Night,” a dance mix of which appears on the album instead of the less expansive 45 version. Like the careening “It Must Be Hell,” “Undercover” exhibits a sense of political scorn that seems fueled by more genuine disgust than the Stones have spewed up in years. Rich in repugnant detail, the latter cut chronicles current Latin American political agonies, and its music, resounding with coproducer Chris Kimsey’s sirenlike dub echoes, slams the message home with inarguable power.
If there are disappointments on Undercover, they can only be claimed in comparison to past Stones triumphs. If the album lacks the epochal impact of, say, Sticky Fingers, then perhaps it’s because the mythic years of pop are past — by now, even the Stones have long since bade them goodbye. But Undercover seems to be more felicitously concentrated than Exile on Main Street, and while it may lack that album’s dark power and desperate atmosphere, it does deliver nonstop, unabashed rock & roll crafted to the highest standards in the business. And that, rest assured, will do just fine.