Unless you’ve been gathering moss living under a rock, you’ll know that the Rolling Stones have a new album out. You would also have heard that it is 18 years since A Bigger Bang, the Stones last album of original music, and that the new album, Hackney Diamonds is the Stones’ best album in 40 years. When A Bigger Bang (2005) came out I contacted my friend Hilton, the most committed Rolling Stones fan I know, to ask if he’d listened to the album. He said he had, but he found it sad and stale.
When Blue & Lonesome (2016) came out, it received decent reviews. It was an album of blues covers. I listened to it a couple of times, then filed it away. I wasn’t taken by Jagger’s singing. I found it contrived. This time is different and the Stones know it. They have a dynamic, engrossing, and powerful album on their hands. An album that taps into the essence of the Stones but also sounds contemporary. This is an LP they can get behind and promote. Our first video is from the NYC launch party:
In an interview with Sky News, Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood said that the collaboration with Lady Gaga was a result of Lady Gaga recording in the same studio complex. Gaga happened to have sung with the Stones once before. On the Stones 50 and Counting tour, Lady Gaga sang Gimme Shelter with the band on 14 December 2012. On that tours’ 5 shows, different female singers joined Jagger on the song (Mary J. Blige and Florence Welch also had turns).
Many reviewers have compared Lady Gaga’s singing on Sweet Sound of Heaven to Merry Clayton’s stunning background vocals on Gimme Shelter. That’s a big compliment. Lady Gaga has written on Instagram: “I sang in a way I never really sang before except for with Mick.” Some reviewers have called the climax of the gospel-and-soul-tinged song a duel between Gaga and Jagger. Billboard writes that the song builds to a pair of “growly soul shout-off” peaks. Here is the lead single from Hackney Diamonds:
That is Angry, which opens with a riff reminiscent of Start Me Up (1981). Angry peaked at #34 in the UK and #32 on the US Billboard Hot Rock & Alternative Songs charts. Sweet Sounds of Heaven reached #2 on the UK singles chart and #29 on US Billboard Digital Song Sales chart. Meanwhile Hackney Diamonds, the parent album, has soared up the charts around the world. In the UK, Hackney Diamonds debuted at #1 on the Albums Chart published on Friday, 27 October 2023. The album sold more than the rest of the top 5 combined. This makes The Rolling Stones the first band to have first-release chart-topping albums in the UK in six different decades.
As regards the reviews of the album, Metacritic gives Hackney Diamonds a weighted average score of 78 out of 100 from 22 reviews. That means the reviews have been mostly positive. A conspicuous outlier is the Pitchfork review, which is scathing. Grayson Haver Currin, the Pitchfork critic, does warm to the Keith Richards sung Tell Me Straight. He writes, “With its dim flickers of dissonance and bedraggled tone, it is a welcome reprieve from Hackney Diamonds’ exhausting and ageless quest for perfection.” He also has time for Sweet Sound of Heaven, wherein “Jagger contemplates nationalism, poverty, and his own mortality, trying to resist the sirens’ call for just a bit more hard living”. He concludes his observation on the song saying “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.”
Earlier in his review, Currin quips: “The Stones helped define rock stardom’s swaggering ethos. They also turned it forever into a big fucking business.” For him, it is the latter aspect of the Rolling Stones legacy that dominates Hackney Diamonds and the myriad of formats in which it has been released. It is, he says, “Available in so many vinyl, CD, and Blu-Ray variants it should give Taylor Swift new ideas”. His final summation of the album: “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.”
I see Currin’s point. The Rolling Stones have become an industry and their choice of producer (Andrew Watt) points to a venerable band wanting a contemporary commercial sound make-over. Nonetheless, Hackney Diamonds is the first Rolling Stones album in decades that I’ve played more than a couple of times and still want to hear again. I’m sure the same applies to my friend Hilton.