The Rolling Stones

A Bigger Bang

(Virgin; 2005)

By Matt Stephens | 19 September 2007

What, exactly, is the purpose of a new Rolling Stones album?

For a band that has ceased to be great for more than thirty years, ceased to really matter for more than 25, and ceased to seem like anything beyond a business venture for longer than any CMG writer has been alive (well, except Newell, maybe), the prospect of a new offering from the Glimmer Twins and co. seems not just unappealing, but completely unnecessary. This is an oldies act, after all; folks aren’t shelling out $300 because they’re eager to hear anything off A Bigger Bang, and no one is more aware of that, I’m sure, than good ol’ Mick and Keef.

On the other hand, no time could be better for a Stones comeback than 2005. With MTV kids getting hot and bothered by swaggering misogy-rock like Jet, Louis XIV and even The Darkness, as well as the gradual return of guitar rock as a commercially viable art form, the rootsy grime and cocksure sexuality they invented 40 years ago seems to have come full circle. The Stones should certainly feel more confident in the current musical climate than they did eight years ago, when their last album, the glossy, electronica-tinged abortion Bridges to Babylon, was released, and on A Bigger Bang, they show it --- one-upping all the copyists young enough to be their grandchildren and giving us their best album since… oh, who knows… probably since I was born, at least.

Opener “Rough Justice” should erect a few hairs on the back of anyone who’s ever loved classic Stones. The Human Riff offers us a couple bars of a false start, before the rest of the band enters, sounding more natural and comfortable with each other than anyone could expect, likely a result of spending the better part of the last 3 years on the road together. Jagger enters with a pair of brilliantly dumb double entendres: “One time you were my baby chicken / now you’ve grown into a fox / Once upon a time I was your little rooster / now am I just one of your cocks?” As with the rest of the record, the band is in absolutely incredible form here, particularly the 62 year-old Jagger, whose voice is supernaturally good for someone a few years shy of a discounted bus pass; sure, he’s a bit like a crotchety old man leering at your sister, but he sounds sexy enough to actually have a chance with her.

The band synergy doesn’t stop there. “Oh No, Not You Again” could tear up the dancefloor at any hipster dive, and its thunderous coda sounds thrillingly unrehearsed. “Rain Fall Down” rides a convincingly funky riff, and “She Saw Me Coming” features a dense Richards hook supporting Jagger’s yearning drawl with their signature lock step effortlessness. The decent but undistinguished “Streets of Love” and “Biggest Mistake” are nothing more than what you’d expect from Stones ballads, but they’re redeemed by the mesmerizing “Laugh, I Nearly Died,” where Jagger’s soulful moaning carries the song to an excellent gospel-flavoured climax.

There are missteps, of course. The much-ballyhooed “Sweet Neo Con” features some supposedly biting political commentary that isn’t that biting at all (“you call yourself a Christ-eean / I think that you’re a hypocrite / you say you are a patriot / I think that you’re a crock of shit”) over a pretty lazy song structure, and the rest of the album’s last four tracks feel like afterthoughts, which given the album’s daunting length of 16 tracks at 64 minutes isn’t much of a surprise. What is a surprise, though, is how much The Stones sound like a band with something to prove, a band determined to exceed, not just outlive, expectations. Here, they succeed just by doing what they do best, taking few chances, but sounding more comfortable in their own skin than they have in a very long time. In that sense, A Bigger Bang would make a fine swansong; not only does it bring them back home musically, it suggests that maybe they were never that far away from it in the first place.