I have a complicated relationship with the blues. Generally speaking, I like blues music, especially electric blues, as it forms the essential DNA of rock music. However, my appreciation only goes so far. Heretical as it may be to say, only a quarter of what is classified as blues music is any good. The remaining 75% strikes me as a really, really bad eyewitness testimony might, all obvious characteristics intact in their cartoonishness. Bald head, squinty eyes, big nose: check. Twelve bars, “woke up this mornin’,” “got the blues,” “my baby left me,” check. Deeper details? Sorry, I missed those — it all happened so fast.
I’m not kidding myself. Any musical genre that lasts for a considerable period of time is going to produce a raft of cliches and, possibly, end up defined by them. As it is with hip-hop, pop, prog rock, punk rock and on, so too will it be with the blues.
So coming to The Rolling Stones’ latest, Blue & Lonesome, was going to be a challenge because I would need to confront basic biases. To the band’s benefit, there’s a lot of goodwill waiting for them. It is their first studio album since their 2005 release A Bigger Bang. The Stones come to this musical form very transparently, with a mighty long career bearing witness to this sound. They’re, in no way whatsoever, tourists. And further, they’re not chasing after any modern trend that makes them look foolish somehow. Blue & Lonesome seems to be a very natural step.
Still, this is a covers album. It is not what longtime fans might have hoped for, and it really is loyal to the bone for the blues. The songs may be rockin’ at times, but they’re not really rock songs. According to the liner notes provided by Richard Havers, the desire to do a record like this has been in play for many years, perhaps decades, yet it was simple writer’s block in the studio that caused Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to just break into an old blues favorite. Longtime collaborator Don Was was thankful that engineer Krish Sharma “ran tape” and captured it. Energized by the one-off, The Glimmer Twins, Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts barreled ahead and made this record in three days.
Was it passion or was it a toss-off? I’m going to drive down the middle of that particular road. Banging out a batch of covers certainly gets product out there fast. That’s why there are too damn many covers albums in this world. But Jagger and Richards really love this stuff, and when it is said that they simply dove in, I believe this. I have no cynical broadsides to their sincerity, and know this is no weird left-turn after years of strategic research.
What helps is that the end result is good — actually really good — for what it is. I’m not a fan of the crusty production sound. We’re going to be told this was to capture the live energy of performances that, in spots, are actually one-and-done. We’ll be persuaded that an essential part of making a new blues album is to retain the ragged feel of old blues records. This I do not buy easily. With all this on the table, it is undeniable that the group feels more engaged here than they were for the majority of their time on Virgin Records in the ’90s and early-2000s. Appropriateness is also a factor. Those latter day Stones albums regularly featured songs about these elder statesmen of rock ‘n roll skeeving on sweet young thangs. Blue & Lonesome captures the sound of the old bluesmen because (and I mean this with no disrespect) they are old bluesmen. It works because it works, fitting into place very naturally, and rarely does my radar go off to indicate contrivance.
The one time I do sense I’m being played is when it is stated that Eric Clapton just happened to be in the studio next door, so The Stones just happened to invite him in to play on “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby.” How convenient! But hey, it all works anyhow, and when Mick pronounces “drain” as “drine” and “thing” as “thy-ng,” it’s meant to be. He’s been doing the Delta Blues drawl his whole career, so it sounds like a homecoming.
Is it essential? It it necessary? Hard to determine. Half the diehard Stones fans will be in their seventh heaven and half may regard this as a cop out, like another three live albums chased with another two greatest hits collections. Again believing in the sincerity of the band, I’m going to split the difference once more. It is necessary because The Rolling Stones were always going to wind up here eventually. This really is who these guys are, certainly for Jagger, Richards, and Watts, but just as much for Wood having initially hailed from the nasty blooze of Faces. But the album is not essential, no more than Honkin’ On Bobo was for Aerosmith, blues tribute that that particular release was.
My thought is that the album is going to sell really well, and that consumer base will be Stones fans in the main who would have bought whatever the crew put out. And like any new album a legacy act puts out, it will be embraced closely but briefly, set back on the shelf when Let It Bleed or Exile On Main Street gets taken down. At least this time, the Rolling Stones have put together a record that actually deserves to be on that shelf at all.