Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Hard Again

****

THE ROLLING STONES
A Bigger Bang
Virgin

Former World's Greatest Band show how they used to do it

Old rockers make too many promises they can't keep. So you can bet the life and lightness of the Rolling Stones' twenty-third studio album will be considered a miracle. Without playing "best since" games, just say it ranks near the top of the eight they've manufactured since 1980. Note, however, that there are only eight, most of which drag or suck. Not even the most propulsive songs on 1994's Voodoo Lounge or 1997's Bridges to Babylon approach the driving interlock of "Rough Justice": Mick Jagger's high-energy drawl powered by Keith Richards's rude precision and Charlie Watts's uncommonly ecstatic beat. But if A Bigger Bang's lead track is worthy of Exile on Main Street, it would fall in line somewhere to the rear. "Best since" is a tough game with these guys.

Although Ron Wood's slide and Darryl Jones's bass are also major positives on "Rough Justice," it's the three original Stones who make the album go--Jagger even plays bass on five tracks, although not the strongest ones. Apparently, Watts's recovery from throat cancer both inspired rock's greatest drummer to top the high standards he's seldom slipped below and gave his old comrades spiritual space to renew what was once one of rock's most fruitful partnerships. Jagger is leaner and less phlegmy throughout, and Richards hasn't come up with a guitar part as addictive as the once on "Rain Fall Down" since the days when he was running on his own blood.

The lyrics aren't bad either: "Once upon a time I was your little rooster/Now I'm just one of your cocks" is only the first of many vernacular twists that prove Jagger is trying. There's even a decent Bush-bashing song. One puzzle remains, however: why anyone should care about the ideas and travails, much less effort level, of this monumentally wealthy, monumentally self-involved roué who claims he can't hold a woman and probably deserves no better. Jagger remains an A-list celebrity, so some will care, and rock aesthetes will be piqued by his resurrection. But where once he was a generation's reality principle, his emotional distance long since degenerated into cynicism. Coming back from that would be the real miracle.

Blender, Oct. 2005