Before he was the drug-smuggling, skull-ring-wearing pirate of rock’n’roll lore, Keith Richards was the Rolling Stones’ amateur accountant. A working-class kid born into mid-war England, the spendthrift immediately began documenting the band’s finances: how much they made from those early gigs (often zero), how much sessions cost (not much), and how Bill Wyman was more valuable as a guy who owned a Vox amp than as a bassist (ouch). The Stones subsequently became not just one of the world’s biggest bands but also most ostentatious—a merchandising machine with lips-emblazoned jumbo jets, rented French mansions, and outsized stadium shows. The Stones helped define rock stardom’s swaggering ethos. They also turned it forever into a big fucking business.
On Hackney Diamonds—the second album of original material by the Rolling Stones this century and the first since the death of drummer Charlie Watts, the band’s bedrock for more than half a century—these titans of industry flail as they try to act their image rather than their age. Alongside producer Andrew Watt, they turn every trick they can to conjure just one more hit, one more chance to cash in. They try and fail to reinvigorate themselves in the rock’n’roll fountain of youth they helped create, only to emerge with a dozen hackneyed duds. Hackney Diamonds, named for the shattered glass left by a burglar, reinforces the worst part of the Stones’ once-aggressive outlaw image: eternal avarice.
To that end, Hackney Diamonds lands right on time for the two American bonanzas for which it seems algorithmically rendered: holiday spending and Super Bowl advertising. This is exactly the sort of album you gift a middle-age, mid-divorce dad who’s flailing for direction as he speeds around town in his post-split sports car, cranking the Stones’ anti-romance rants. A petulant ex for 60 years now, Mick Jagger is so pouty about being put out here it scans as absolute arrogance. Sneering opener “Angry” is the theme song for the pops who reminds everyone how hard he’s worked, how little thanks he gets, and how he’s also, inexplicably, “still taking the pills” and “off to Brazil.”
You can picture Dad pounding his hand against the steering wheel in time to “Bite My Head Off,” four minutes of punk so patrician that it takes a blown-out bass solo by Sir Paul McCartney for it to sound remotely tough. During “Driving Me Too Hard,” Jagger threatens to escape to Morocco or the corner bar, then concocts neologisms for crying, an emotionally unavailable man too afraid of these things called feelings to name them. What’s more, it sounds like the Eagles trying to be bland.
The other half of Hackney Diamonds feels like an advertisement for advertising placements, songs meant to be sold to sell something else. As The New Yorker’s David Remnick noted in 2010, the Stones grossed $2 billion in the prior 30 years, largely buoyed by big-ticket syncs for beer and software. The priapic pleas of “Get Close” seem customized for Cialis, its buoyant hook perfect for the smiling silver couple. James King’s throbbing sax solo makes an apt bed for the side-effects legalese at the end. “Dreamy Skies”—an interminable and illogical country blues about escaping to the woods “with no connections or a satellite phone”—presages a potential bidding war between Jeep and Subaru. It barely matters that these aren’t primo Stones cuts and that they are as bland as talcum powder. Touched up by tech, Watt, and a half-dozen assorted engineers, Jagger’s lissome tone remains instantly identifiable, a marketing team’s dream.
This is the first Stones album Watt has produced—not bad, since it’s only the fifth they’ve released since his birth. Still, he’s been here before. Apart from albums by Post Malone, Miley Cyrus, and Justin Bieber, Watt has helmed sessions by Ozzy Osbourne, Iggy Pop, and Elton John (a frequent guest on Hackney Diamonds). In this realm, Watt is the antithesis of Rick Rubin. Rather than lean into the age and experience of his elders, he drags them toward the present, goading them to sound like their younger selves within ill-fitting contemporary settings. For the Stones, Watt favors the molds of circa-millennium alternative rock, from Collective Soul to Franz Ferdinand, then buffs the results until they gleam like sickly wax figures. Jagger, terrifyingly, has never sounded so youthful. Keith Richards has rarely sounded so normal, his solos all exercises in convention and efficiency. Imagine upgrading a classic muscle car, say the MG Midget or a 1967 Shelby Cobra, with cheap but shiny plastic parts. Posed, patched, and polished until the actual character has all but disappeared, that’s how Hackney Diamonds sounds.
The Stones are so tightly wound for the album’s first nine songs that they risk snapping, their famously ramshackle indulgence supplanted by the need to be quantized and mechanized. They blessedly let up near the end, when Richards steps forward to lead “Tell Me Straight,” a vulnerable little query about a relationship’s odds of survival. With its dim flickers of dissonance and bedraggled tone, it is a welcome reprieve from Hackney Diamonds’ exhausting and ageless quest for perfection. (What’s more, it’s a reminder of how the looseness of Richards and the Stones at large helped inform bands like Slint and Sonic Youth.) This is as unmitigated and honest as the Stones have sounded in years, the age showing through Richards’ licks and lyrics. Good thing for Keef, too, as his solos on Hackney Diamonds are among the most routine and forgettable of his career.
Aside from a post-scripted cover of the Muddy Waters mantra that gave the band its name, Hackney Diamonds ends with “Sweet Sounds of Heaven,” a horn-lifted gospel number that mostly seems like an excuse to riff with Lady Gaga and Stevie Wonder. Jagger contemplates nationalism, poverty, and his own mortality, trying to resist the sirens’ call for just a bit more hard living. “No, I’m not going to hell in some dusty motel,” he rails, Gaga buttressing him as actual feeling and fight well up in his voice for the first time all album. “And I’m not, not going down in the dirt.” Jagger spends the first 30 minutes of Hackney Diamonds cosplaying a younger version of himself, all cocksure and strutting and fake. He is only convincing when he sings of what is real and nearer every day.
Richards turns 80 in December. Jagger beat him to octogenarian status by five months. It is possible, at least, that these Glimmer Twins will be the first two of our species to last forever. But probably not. And if Hackney Diamonds, despite the ever-impetuous Jagger’s protestations to the contrary, lands as the final Stones’ album, it won’t be a worthy farewell from the band that once made sex, danger, and bitter honesty so integral to rock’n’roll. Available in so many vinyl, CD, and Blu-Ray variants it should give Taylor Swift new ideas, Hackney Diamonds suggests that the key component of rock’n’roll as the Stones now see it is that it moves units. They have nothing of consequence to say here, even after losing the band’s anchor, nor no indelible riffs to play, even after two decades to write them. Just like the image of its title, Hackney Diamonds isn’t at all full of rare gems; it is, instead, the mess made in the attempt to get easy money from someone else.
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