They didn’t have to do this. They’re the Rolling Stones. They need no excuse to tour stadiums. Their discography was not missing one last piece. In 2023 — two years after the death of founding drummer Charlie Watts, seven years after their last album, 18 years after their last collection of original songs, and 61 years after they formed the band — there was no pressing need for a new LP. The only reason for Mick and Keef and Ronnie to make Hackney Diamonds is because they wanted to.
I’m glad they did it. Hackney Diamonds is good. It’s not going to stand as some brilliant new chapter in the band’s catalog a la Dylan’s Rough And Rowdy Ways, but an album that could have been a disaster and an embarrassment is instead genuinely enjoyable. I can even imagine playing it around the house or in the car when not being paid to write about it. If some group of 20-year-old Stones fans made this record, we might be praising them as rock ‘n’ roll’s last great hope. Instead, Hackney Diamonds stands as proof that 80-year-old rock heroes can still convincingly pull off the style they invented, that they can still pump vitality into the same trusty formulas they perfected decades ago. If it’s the last Rolling Stones album, they’re going out with their dignity intact.
It makes sense to be skeptical of another classic rock act employing Andrew Watt, the pop-rap producer and close Post Malone collaborator who has carved out a lucrative side hustle working with esteemed veterans like Ozzy Osbourne, Iggy Pop, and Pearl Jam. I have liked some of Watt’s work with pantheon-level rockers — that Iggy album had some jams — but he does have a tendency to make everything sound a bit too pro, too studio-clean, as if rock music is happening inside plastic packaging. Do I wish they could recapture the energy and textures they caught on tape at Muscle Shoals in 1969? Sure, but any Stones album this late into their too-big-to-fail multinational-corporation era was going to sound more polished than raw. Hackney Diamonds succeeds in conveying much of the old grit and swagger within the inevitable gloss.
In fact, the songs Watt co-wrote with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are some of my favorites on the album. The Stones must feel the same way because they’ve lined them up one-two-three at the start of the tracklist. Opener and lead single “Angry” saunters out of the gate with big “Start Me Up” energy, the kind of cocksure chord riff Richards made famous, and a startlingly effective hook from Jagger: “Don’t be angry with me!” It’s a solid start, and “Get Close” is even better. The track triangulates the distance between “Sway” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” with a hip-swinging mid-tempo beat and a saucy two-chord riff spiked with melancholia. Yeah, the liquid guitar tone makes the song sound more expensive than I’d prefer, but when that sax solo hits on the bridge, the feeling is damn near euphoric. Completing the opening trilogy, ballad “Depending On You” boasts country-fried lead guitar, another memorable chorus, and a Jagger lyric that could work as a thesis statement for the late-era Stones: “Now I’m too young for dying and too old to lose.”
From there, it’s a lot more familiar tropes jolted back to life. “Bite My Head Off,” though leaning a bit too hard on dog-related wordplay, is a hard, fast rocker that gives those old twangy vocal harmonies the chance to shine — plus it’s cool to know that old rival Paul McCartney is holding it down on bass. “Live By The Sword” is a piano-rocker built for the honky-tonk, and (again with the bassists) the return of Bill Wyman is a nice touch. The requisite Richards track “Tell Me Straight” is pleasingly smooth and cooled-off but with bite, as if boomeranging back to the Stones from the deeper recesses of Wilco’s Being There. And “Mess It Up,” although edging closer to corny than anything else here, in the end makes good use of both a gospel choir and a disco beat. (“You think I’d mess it up, mess it up, mess it up all for you?” Jagger sings to an aspiring mistress who, per the lyrics, seduced his landlord and broke into his residence. We know it’s fiction because there’s no way Jagger rents any of his many homes.)
There are some replacement-level rockers along the way, and as several of the lesser songs pile up near the middle of the album, it becomes clear how easily this project can topple over into corporate-retreat bar-band territory. But on the whole, the Stones keep up the momentum, and their signature moves still connect. Jagger’s grizzled howl sounds as strong as ever at age 80, and his lyrics, for the most part, mirror the simple, direct relatability of the Stones’ music. Richards can still wring fresh life out of his well-worn rhythm guitar playbook more than six decades in. Charlie Watts’ handpicked successor Steve Jordan acquits himself as expected. It would be nice if superstar guest instrumentalists like Elton John and Stevie Wonder were given a brighter spotlight rather than folded into the mix, but it’s not like their presence on the album is a make-or-break factor.
Hackney Diamonds ends with a grand finale and a lovely little denouement. First, the finale: “Sweet Sounds Of Heaven,” the gospel-rock epic that brings a wailing Lady Gaga into the Rolling Stones universe, channels bits of “Gimme Shelter” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” but mostly stands as its own thing, one last horizon-scale showstopper from one of the last truly iconic rock ‘n’ roll bands standing. When that brass section comes blaring in at the end, the guitars start to properly crunch, and Jordan bashes the shit out of his cymbals, any ambivalence about loving a Stones-Gaga song in 2023 evaporates, replaced by a simple gratitude that they’re still with us.
Then, when the dust clears, we’re left with a sparse acoustic cover of Muddy Waters’ “Rolling Stone Blues,” peppered with harmonica and rendered in lower fidelity than the rest of the tracks. It’s a full-circle moment that works as an epilogue for both the album and the Rolling Stones as a whole — one more homage to their influences that doubles as one more act of self-mythology. Hackney Diamonds doesn’t add much to that mythology, but it reminds us that behind the layers of nostalgia and the bloated business operation, the rock band that earned that mythic stature remains.
Hackney Diamonds is out 10/20 on Polydor.