Album review: The Rolling Stones – Blue & Lonesome

To say that Blue & Lonesome is the best Rolling Stones studio album in over a decade is a no-brainer. Despite the recurring, immortal presence of the Stones via their world tours and vault releases of iconic live shows, it’s actually the first studio album since 2005’s A Bigger Bang. And after all that, there’s not even an original track on it. Only the Stones could get away with leaving us hanging for a period longer than The Beatles’ entire career only to brush off the dust and deliver a cover album.

But to dismiss the dozen tracks on Blue & Lonesome as a bunch of hastily cobbled together old favourites to make a few quid while providing another excuse for a tour would be a grave misjudgement. This is a marvelous, beguiling and energetic album. It’s also one of their finest and most truthful. Let’s bear in mind that the Stones made their bones in the blues. The 12-bars of desperate men’s pleas are entwined within the very DNA of the band.

And if there’s anyone who has gained a right to sing the blues it’s Mick Jagger. In his early seventies he was suddenly made a widow after his partner L’Wren Scott committed suicide during their relationship’s 14th year. Jagger had somehow avoided tragedy for much of his meteroic rise (and subsequent stranglehold) to fame. Suddenly this immortal, age-defining rock icon was vulnerable, knocked for six. To hear Blue & Lonesome is to hear a descent into madness and uncertainty but one determined to make an exponential getaway from it.

Guided by rock’s most primal fighters, this is an urgent album of raw power. Its players are stripped to their core. This is the first Stones album in over 30 years to NOT feature Jagger laying down some rhythm guitar alongside his lead vocals. And it’s the first Stones studio album since 1974 to NOT feature a track or two with Keith Richards on lead vocals, instead just sticking to his trademark guitar work but placing more of a focus on his ever underrated lead work, leaving Ronnie Wood to clean up on rhythm (plus some staccato lead) while distractingly classy Charlie Watts remains the king of the beat. Watts’ drumming is jazz infused but grounded with a solid rock backbone that keeps the Stones tighter than they’ve played in a generation. There’s no distraction here. After hanging up his guitar, what Jagger does provide (when he’s not howling his vocals like a dustbowl migrant screaming into an upcoming storm) is some absolutely sublime harmonica work to rival his iconic harp playing on Gimme Shelter. Jagger is, hands down, one of the best harmonica players of his or any generation and Blue & Lonesome is testament to his powers.

As lean as this quartet is, it’s about time keyboard player Chuck Leavell and bass player Darryl Jones were officially made full time members of the band. Their contributions here add colourful flesh and bruises to some old bones. There’s not a note wasted on this album. Speaking of which, Eric Clapton guests on two tracks. He’s a natural lock. This makes a lot of sense given that half a century ago Slowhand led the charge to bring the predominantly black genre of blues to a less segregated westernised crowd. Clapton was a trailblazer who owes his pop career to music that began before he was born and the same is true of the Stones. As Clapton did himself with From The Cradle, the Stones’ Blue & Lonesome represents a spiritual homecoming as well as a public display of affection.

Indeed, the Stones aren’t just covering these songs; they’re reliving them, getting fuelled by them and translating them into their language. This is as true as anything by Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Magic Sam or Willie Dixon ever did. When Jagger bellows “I’m gonna leave you woman before I commit a crime; You tried so hard to kill me, woman it just was not my time.” we believe him. For anyone who has lost faith in the Stones, Blue & Lonesome is a powerful testament to why we knelt before them in the first place. If they were to never record again, this searing, soaring classic would serve as a perfect bookend to a remarkable career.

Blue & Lonesome is out now.

Track listing:

    Just Your Fool
    Commit A Crime
    Blue And Lonesome
    All Of Your Love
    I Gotta Go
    Everybody Knows About My Good Thing
    Ride ‘Em On Down
    Hate To See You Go
    Hoo Doo Blues
    Little Rain
    Just Like I Treat You
    I Can’t Quit You Baby

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