At this point in the game, it would be fair to assume that The Rolling Stones weren’t that concerned about putting out another album. The past few years have been consumed by reissuing albums, touring behind those reissues, documentaries, greatest hits packages, more touring, and a well-received autobiography. Plus, when you are unquestionably the biggest rock band in the world and some of the last men standing from the paradigm-changing British Invasion, your legacy is beyond carved in stone. Nevertheless, the bug seems to have struck, and the band has released their first record in 11 years, Blue & Lonesome (Interscope Records).
The story goes that the Stones assembled to do some recording for a potential new album, but were having trouble getting the sound right in an unfamiliar studio. So they knocked out a blues cover to get them warmed up. It sounded and felt so good that they kept with it, not necessarily to make an album, but just to have some fun. At the end of the three days, much to their surprise, they had a record in the can. For longtime Stones fans, Blue & Lonesome is probably the album they’ve always wanted, as the origin story of the band is that they were drawn together by a mutual love for Chicago blues. Most of their earliest records have a blues cover or two, or at the very least, songs that were deeply influenced by the blues. Yet, they’ve never gone all in like this before.
In some ways, this is the perfect time to release such a record. Earlier in their career it would have pigeonholed them, while releasing it midway through would have been a momentum killer. Now, it’s an elder statesmen move that also sidesteps the “back to basics” approach of some of their contemporaries.
On Stones records from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, there were always overt nods to contemporary trends to keep the band “relevant.” Blue & Lonesome doesn’t do any of that. There are no samples or drums loops, just the band together in one room knocking out songs. The core four members—Mick Jagger, Keith Richard, Charlie Watts, and Ronnie Woods (in case you didn’t know)—are joined by longtime auxiliary members Darryl Jones on bass and Chuck Leavell on keyboards. The sessions were also fleshed out by additional keyboards by Matt Clifford and guitar from Eric Clapton on two songs, Little Johnny Taylor’s “Everyone Knows About My Good Thing” and Otis Rush’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby.” Clapton just happened to be in the same studio working on his record.
But does the album deliver? It’s a delightful relief to confirm that it works like John Henry. While opinions vary on the last truly great Stones record, there’s no denying that an album this vital and this focused hasn’t been heard in awhile. There’s also no denying that having the band in the same room just playing provides a looseness and intensity that wouldn’t have happened if they had recorded separately and done a bunch of post-performance tweaking. Because they weren’t “recording an album,” so to speak, it gave them the freedom to go deeper than if they had expectations at the back of their minds. The song choices aren’t obvious ones, Jagger concentrates on vocals and harmonica, and everyone sounds like they’re having the time of their lives. Jagger’s performance is a revelation in that he taps into years of living to tackle the emotional depth needed to conquer the material. In fact, he sounds so good, it’s like it’s 1964 again.
This is the type of record that would be perfect in a small dive bar. Sure, one can imagine that these will be the songs that the Stones will venture out to the smaller stage on the arena floor for a more intimate experience, but really these songs are made for a tumbler of the brown and a beat-up bar stool. Blue & Lonesome is the delivery on a promise made many years ago, and an inversion of the cliche. It shows that sometimes it’s fine to let the old dogs have their old tricks.