Gone are the smooth moves, trendy nods and lackluster songcraft of Dirty Work and Steel Wheels, the Rolling Stones‘ last two studio discs. The band’s new album, Voodoo Lounge, is ragged and glorious, reveling in the quintessential rock & roll the Stones marked as their own some 30 years ago. Plumbing the past to cop riffs from their classics, the Stones perfect their rebel stance in the service of pleasure, with producer Don Was working to bring it all up to date. Together, they keep the grooves short and mean, making for an album that’s tight without being overprocessed, neat without being nice.
The incomparable Charlie Watts is Voodoo’s secret weapon, from the album’s opening snare-drum volley to the effortless swing of its sign-off, “Mean Disposition.” Watts’ command allows new bassist Darryl Jones to easily click into place. (Bill who?) Keith Richards plays fast and loose, and Ron Wood adds his own torn and frayed finesse to Richards’ vamps. Mick Jagger’s singing is pure pleasure.
While they echo the usual catalog of references — Chuck Berry in “Mean Disposition,” Gram Parsons in “The Worst” — the songs on Voodoo Lounge find the Stones charged with renewed musical nerve: the skewed R&B of “Baby Break It Down”; “Moon Is Up,” where the “mystery drum” Watts brushes is an upside-down garbage can; the country-Celtic folk of the Richards-sung “The Worst” (with Wood on sweet pedal steel); the Caribbean skip of “Sweethearts Together.” On “Love Is Strong,” Jagger’s skanking harp (shades of “Miss You”) and predatory vocal chart a dangerous path, though not without humor: “My love is strong/And you’re so sweet/And someday, babe/We got to meet.” “You Got Me Rocking” is a throwback to Exile on Main Street-vintage bar-brawl tunes like “Rip This Joint.”
On the stunning ballad “Out of Tears” (featuring Chuck Leavell’s dreamy piano), Jagger drops attitude to sing couplets of crushing pain: “I can’t feel/Feel a thing/I can’t shout/I can’t scream.” On the other hand, “Thru and Thru” demonstrates that the Stones are still capable of extreme daffiness, as Richards, by now a full-fledged admiral in the nasal academy, sings passionately of a love as constant … as a 24-hour market (“You know that we do takeaway/But we deliver, too …”).
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Just as Jagger’s latest solo outing, Wandering Spirit, proved far stronger than his first two, so Voodoo Lounge is leagues ahead of the last few Stones records. Not surprisingly, the record is suffused with sex, ironic or otherwise. But now, while still pussy crazy after all these years, Jagger asserts his unflagging drive while singing tenderly about his fears of aging and loss of potency.
Hence the procession of sweet things ready to fuel the flagging flames. Wandering Spirit’s immortal motto (“I’m as hard as a brick/Hope I never go limp,” from “Wired All Night”) has ballooned into Voodoo Lounge’s cornucopia of concupiscence: “You make me hard/You make me weak” (“Love Is Strong”); “Sparks will fly/When I get myself back on you, baby” (“Sparks Will Fly”); “Jack her up, baby, go on, open the hood/I want to check if her oil smells good/Mmm — smells like caviar” (“Brand New Car”). Jagger can’t help it; he’s just afraid of running out of time. It’s not odd in this context to find the horny funk of “Holetown Prison (Suck on the Jugular)” with lyrics like “All get together and fuck all night…. Let’s live lasciviously” side by side with a lovely study of faith and fate, the anti-violence “Blinded by Rainbows”: “Do you fear the final hour/Do you kneel before the cross….”
While Jagger and company are busy logging time on the sex beat, their sex-and-romance lyrics can also be read as a metaphor for career. The assertion that they can jolly well keep up artistically and commercially peeks out from under the tellingly titled “New Faces.” With its “Lady Jane”-style harpsichord, the song mock-dramatizes a lover’s comeuppance by a “figure of youth”: “He stands so aloof/With an indolent air/And an insolent stare.” Still, the upstart may end up “rotting in hell” for presuming to take the mantle.
On “Out of Tears,” Jagger faces down mortality: “I just can’t pour my heart out/To another living thing/I’m a whisper/I’m a shadow/But I’m standing up to sing.” But just in case you think he’s gone all sensitive, meet “I Go Wild,” on which a “raggedy dog” sniffs out some girls: “And the doctor says/You’ll be OK/And if you’d only/Stay away/From femmes fatales/And dirty bitches/And daylight drabs/And nighttime witches… And politicians’ garish wives/With alcoholic cunts like knives.”
From Beggars Banquet to Sticky Fingers, the Stones tantalized me into adolescence. I was 10 or 11 when I heard “Stray Cat Blues” and “Live With Me.” That they also sang about “stupid girls” was lost on me then but not for long. The Stones, however, haven’t much changed on this score. They maintain their Stone Age attitudes about women and sex even as they pass through middle age with lyrics that today’s alternahunks wouldn’t be caught dead singing.
The other day a friend dismissed the bravado of one line off of Voodoo (“I’m gonna fuck your sweet ass,” from “Sparks Will Fly”), grumbling, “Why don’t they sing about stuff that really concerns them, like chronic back pain or tax dodging?” Worthy topics, to be sure, yet I maintain that Mick still means it — this grandfather is still high on hormones and happier for it.