Let’s get this out the way first: ‘Hackney Diamonds’ is probably the Rolling Stones’ best album in two decades, a rich, punchy, at times moving selection of blues-rock songwriting pushed to stadium levels. Crisp in production and assured in its execution, it contains some riveting high points, songs that can easily stand alongside the towering aspects of their catalogue.
Sonically, ‘Hackney Diamonds’ sits in the modern, neo-classical status the Stones have built for themselves since the Glimmer Twins patched things up during the late 80s. Don’t go into this expecting ‘Exile On Main Street’ eclecticism, or even a ‘Some Girls’ style thirst for the zeitgeist. Assured in their status, the band let the world come to them, rather than chasing some trend.
Lead single ‘Angry’ opens the record, its crisp, almost new wave energy propelled by a gleefully childish rant from Jagger. A bolshy group performance, drummer Steve Jordan adds a different kick and groove that blends Charlie’s legacy in the drum stool with his own individual flavour. ‘Get Close’ has a dose of Meters-style funk in its veins, the slightly laidback appeal augmented by slicing guitar riffs. The tempo drops a little on the countrified ‘Depending On You’ before the Southern soul banger ‘Bite My Head Off’ comes leaping out the traps. The lilting ‘Dreamy Skies’ is a highlight, with lush bottleneck sitting alongside a hazy, late summer acoustic guitar strum. Coaxing a wonderfully understated vocal from Jagger, it’s a downbeat triumph.
Not everything lands, however. ‘Whole Wide World’ feels a little rote, a little too close to the formula the Rolling Stones perfected as the CD generation dawned, and a new group of fans swelled their ranks. The 80s-tinged production doesn’t help – it feels oddly dated. Equally, while his status as a lizard-like, hip-shaking frontman of immortal prowess remains intact, Jagger’s lyricism – so often underrated – delivers a few clunkers here.
The highs, though, are what fans are tuning in for. Released prior to the record itself, ‘Sweet Sounds Of Heaven’ is gorgeous, a soul ballad par excellence. A riveting group performance, it hangs together in perfect harmony, the kind of thing thousands of groups aim for but few ever reach. Reasserting their primal sound, the Rolling Stones are joined by Lady Gaga – one of her generation’s finest vocal technicians. Her extraordinary, wonderfully over-the-top performance lifts the entire song to another level. Truly, the album’s pinnacle, and also arguably the Stones’ finest 21 st century recording.
Looking at the timescale for a tour, and the lengthy 15-year gap between original albums, the natural question for fans is: will this be the final Stones album? ‘Hackney Diamonds’ frequently acts as a kind of homage from the Stones to themselves. The largesse, the motifs, the melding of eras – both Charlie Watts and erstwhile bassist Bill Wyman appears – construct a love letter to their own legacy.
Closing with a charming run through, ‘Rolling Stones Blues’ – the song Brian Jones named the band after – is the perfect way to go out; soulful and controlled, low key and magnificent. More releases may yet emerge from this batch of recordings, but ‘Hackney Diamonds’ presents a group whose virility, ambition, and desire to connect remains undimmed.
Words: Robin Murray