Not the Pazz and Jop 1972 – #2

The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main Street

I would never call myself a Stones fan: I think fandom requires a bit more than just liking anything you hear on the radio or a Spotify playlist. Having heard so much of the band over the years, I had a pretty good idea what a Stones record would sound like before listening to it. It would reliably be in the blues-rock vein, but with lots of honky tonk-style piano, maybe some country, soul or gospel elements. They own that lane – everyone else should be smart enough to stay out of their way – but it’s still a fairly recognizable path. The songs I really love by them – the ones that I want to crank up – are those that don’t sound like they came from exactly the same band, like “Ruby Tuesday”, “Sympathy for the Devil” or “Gimme Shelter”.

The thing is, I was wrong, and it took the third listen for me to realize it. There are nuances that only become clear in repeated plays. This song is like a church spiritual (“Torn and Frayed”), that song is like a swing classic updated to late 50s rockabilly (“Rip this Joint”), another is a country-blues shuffle (“Sweet Virginia”), and this other song sounds like it was mixed by a drunk in a gas station bathroom (“Rocks Off”). There was, unexpectedly, another near-brush with solo public dancing during “Loving Cup”.

Part of the problem with double albums is listener fatigue. You start record two full of gusto, but after an hour of the same band, side four is usually the least-listened to of the set. I never felt that way here – much of what I like best on this record is on disc two: the gospel-tinged jam of “I Just Want to See His Face”, the spine-tingling ballad “Let it Loose” (my favourite new-to-me song on the record, and as lovely as anything I’ve ever heard from them), the dance-rocker “All Down the Line”, the balls out Robert Johnson cover “Stop Breaking Down”. The pinnacle comes with “Shine A Light”, the penultimate track, which steers into the gospel elements played with earlier in the record and is haunting in places, followed by “Soul Survivor”, a true show stopper to end the record. It’s a good feeling to be wrong about something this great.

(Originally posted on Facebook, May 16, 2021)