Review: Nearly Two Decades Later, The Rolling Stones Still Roll On

Rolling Stones/Hackney Diamonds/Geffen
Four Out of Five Stars

Videos by American Songwriter

The release of a new album by a storied band used to be considered a major event, one that was highly anticipated and greeted with excitement, enthusiasm, and all the other additives that generally accompany any momentous occasion.

That doesn’t seem to be the situation anymore. With the advent of streams, digital releases, and the other byproducts of the so-called cyber world, the physical album has become a vanishing breed. Singles and single tracks herald the arrival of new work, often negating the importance of an album and relegating it to little more than a collection of selected songs that preceded its arrival. 

If any band could defy that trend, it’s naturally the Rolling Stones. The fact that it’s the band’s first new album since their 2016 Grammy-winning blues covers album Blue & Lonesome, and more, significantly, their first studio album of original material since the 2005 A Bigger Bang, Hackney Diamonds is a milestone to be reckoned with.  It provides proof that even with the tremendous loss of drummer Charlie Watts and the fact that Mick Jagger is an octogenarian and Richards is on the verge of becoming one himself, they and “new boy” Ronnie Wood remain as undeterred as ever, rocking on without regard to age, expectation or,  for that matter, any additional consideration.

Happily then, Hackney Diamonds justifies that attitude entirely. Built on a series of reliable riffs, it’s classic Stones, somewhat perfunctory perhaps, formula-fitting and comfortably comforting to a signature sound. Anyone speculating about what the album would have to offer can probably guess without hearing even a single strain of music. “Angry,” “Driving Me Too Hard” and “Get Close” are singularly Stones, built around ready refrains, angular guitar riffs, and Jagger’s signature snarl. They’re “Start Me Up” and “Jumping Jack Flash” reimagined with contemporary credence. “Dreamy Skies,” on the other hand, recalls the bottle-neck acoustic blues of “No Expectations” and Beggars Banquet. Likewise, a ballad titled “Tell Me Straight” gives Keef the prerequisite lead vocal. “Rolling Stones Blues,” is, as the name implies,” an opportunity to get back to basics.

In general, it’s easy to imagine the band taking their cues from some roughshod jams, adding lyrics, and letting things fly. The pointed titles tell it all. Clearly, too, each of these songs is easily finessed to become standards in their live sets.

Ironically, the edge and intensity find the Stones more or less harkening back to an earlier era. Certain songs—“Bite My Head Off,” featuring a sturdy bass line from Paul McCartney, and “Whole Wide World” and “Mess It Up,” one of two tracks recorded with Watts, along with echoes of ‘70s punk and new wave through a combination of melody and menace, shared with defiance and determination. “Live By the Sword,” the other effort featuring Watts, also marks the temporary return of bassist Bill Wyman, a reunion of sorts of the Stones’ essential ‘70s and ‘80s line-up. 

Nevertheless, the band buttresses its ranks with any number of special guests. Besides McCartney, Hackney Diamonds features cameos by Lady Gaga sharing a high-pitched lead vocal on the weary yet emotive ballad “Sweet Sounds of Heaven” (with Gaga filling the longstanding role of Jagger’s female foil), Elton John playing piano on the rollicking “Get Close and “Live By the Sword,” Stevie Wonder providing keyboards on the aforementioned “Sweet Sounds of Heaven,” and Don Was and Benmont Tench adding their touches as well. Steve Jordan takes on the bulk of the drumming duties while Grammy-winning producer Andrew Watt serves as a stringer, playing pretty much everything else that’s needed, including bass, guitar, percussion, keyboards, backing vocals, strings, mixing, and production.

Consequently, Hackney Diamonds is quintessential Stones, a fine comeback by any measure. Some 60 years on, the Stones are rolling as effortlessly as ever. Welcome back, boys.

Photo by Mark Seliger / Courtesy RCPMK

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