'Hackney Diamonds' by the Rolling Stones: A track-by-track analysis

W try to crack the mystery of how the Rolling Stones made such a good album in 2023.

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Something's changed. Contrary to popular belief, the Rolling Stones did not stop making albums after "Start Me Up," but Hackey Diamonds is the first Stones album since the early 80s that, as Rolling Stone titled it, "You’ll Want to Play More Than Once." Exactly what changed will be a matter of debate for critics, and personally, I'm still trying to work it out myself.

My working theory is that this is the first Rolling Stones album since "Dirty Work," where all the others were "Rolling Stones albums" (in air quotes).

Yes, "Dirty Work" was a worthy album. Fight me.

Hackney Diamonds by The Rolling Stones is confoundingly good

1. "Angry"

What changed may be a mystery, but the result isn't, and Hackney Diamonds spells it out early on with "Angry," an up-tempo rocker that sounds fresher and more vital than it has any right to be. "Angry" works as an opener because it's exactly the statement that the Rolling Stones want to make right now.

"Angry," like a lot on this record, feels effortless, which is something we haven't heard from the Stones in a very long time. It's built around a riff that's excellent in its simplicity, and everything just flows from there. Perhaps the death of rock 'n' roll as the preeminent popular music genre took away the pressure to compete. With no young bucks making a play for the rock god throne, the Stones can simply make riff-heavy rock without having to show the kids how it's done.

2. "Get Close"

One problem with the Rolling Stones' late-period output is that everyone wants a "back-to-basics" Rolling Stones album, but what would that even look like? The Rolling Stones dabbled in every genre from folk to psychedelia to disco to country to reggae; and in my favourite example of Rolling Stoned chutzpah, they put their most aggressively country song on their disco album.

So The Rolling Stones can't just do 12 up-tempo rockers and call it a day. Get Close is slightly more AOR, and less straightforward than "Angry," with a sax solo and harmonies that sound ridiculously fresh and free for elements that are so un-trendy.

The more I listen to Hackney Diamonds the more I think that the secret to its success is the Stones being unselfconscious about not being hip.

3. "Depending On You"

Of course, we were going to get to genre-hopping sooner rather than later. "Depending On You" is a country ballad. The ballads are where the other late-period Stones albums really faltered, especially when they aimed for sincerity. So "Depending On You" has the big sound of modern radio-friendly country, making it a fun little exercise in artifice. The music may be artificial, but man if those swelling strings don't just make you feel good.

4. "Bite My Head Off"

Let's not beat around the bush... with Hackney Diamonds the Rolling Stones do have something to prove. While they don't have to prove themselves against the kids of today, they do have to prove that they can stand up against the passage of time itself. Secretly we're all wondering if this will be the last Rolling Stones album, they're down to one album per decade, and MIck Jagger's just hit 80.

"Bite My Head Off" is a song of such ferocious energy that it's hard to imagine it's not the work of young men. I can't think of another Stones song with this much energy more recent than "Rip This Joint" from 1972's Exile on Main Street. But with its punk energy, and hair-metal solo, "Bite My Head Off" is a walking anachronism.

Having fellow octogenarian Paul McCartney onboard for this one is especially ironic.

5. Whole Wide World

Just for balance, "Bite My Head Off" is followed by the closest thing Hackney Diamonds has to a song about aging. Again, "Whole Wide World" isn't lacking in energy, and it's not a lament about the ravages of time. It's a song of youth's excesses and pitfalls told from the perspective of someone who's been through it all and lived to tell the tale.

This is a refreshing take on the subject. Without "Whole Wide World," the Stones could be accused of denying their age (the way the video for "Angry" only shows old footage of the younger Stones feels like such a denial, and that still annoys me.) But like with the previous track, "Whole Wide World's" energy is a defiant statement that age doesn't have to hold you back.

6. "Dreamy Skies"

Where to start with "Dreamy Skies," my vote for hidden gem of the album.

One thing that I love about the vinyl renaissance is that artists have started constructing albums with an a-side/b-side split in the middle. "Dreamy Skies" is the final track on the a-side, and it's a perfect closer.

"Dreamy Skies" is another country ballad, but it's somehow sincerely believable. It's the equal-opposite of "Depending on You," it's modest where that one went big, and it's daringly sincere, where that one was safely artificial.

It's also got the confident contented energy that comes of having nothing to prove. But it does prove one thing, that you can tone down the energy for a quieter number, without sounding tired.

7. "Mess It Up"

The fake-out intro might be a bit of a cheap trick, but it works... it doesn't matter how many times we hear it, it still sounds like we're really there in the studio.

One might assume that the tragic death of the Stones' original drummer Charlie Watts in 2021 is probably what shook the Stones out of their torpor and that If Watts were still around, Hackney Diamonds wouldn't be as good as it is (if it existed at all.) The first two tracks from the B-side were recorded with Watts, and they fit right in with the rest of Hackney Diamonds, suggesting that we don't in fact have the great man's death to thank for Hackney Diamonds.

What makes "Mess It Up," and "Live By The Sword" fit in so well is their confidence. Of all the genre-hopping the Stones did, disco was probably the most hit-and-miss. Some Girls was fantastic, but there were diminishing returns after Emotional Rescue, which is a shame because Jagger does the disco falsetto so well. "Mess It Up" starts off sounding a little fillery, but becomes an essential track when the disco beat kicks in. And that stomping piano break is dazzling.

8. "Live By The Sword"

Being the two tracks with Charlie Watts, it's tempting to see "Mess It Up" and "Live By The Sword" as two-of-a-kind. What they have in common is that they are both driven by lively piano riffs. "Live By The Sword" is more honky-tonk than disco, and its riff is provided by none other than Elton John. Elton's piano riff is the structure that holds the whole song together, and it does so with flair.

What makes it stand out is Mick Jagger's vocal gymnastics. It's a list song, which can start to feel oppressive without vocal flair, so this really is a track where Mick Jagger gets to do what he does best.

Just don't think too hard about the lyrics.

9. "Driving Me Too Hard"

At about this point, you start to worry. Surely there must be a few duds in here, and at this stage they're due. In that regard "Driving Me Too Hard" is a bit of a scare. When The Stones resort to self-plagiarism, redoing old riffs in their late-period work, it's never good because it just makes for an unfortunate comparison to a better song. "Driving Me Too Hard" starts off sounding like "Tumbling Dice," an unimpeachable classic. Not a good start.

"Driving Me Too Hard" is the only track I'd call filler. But in its defense, it's not a straight copy of "Tumbling Dice;" "Driving Me Too Hard" riffs on the "Tumbling Dice" groove, turning out a perfectly pleasant AOR ballad. And it's nice to sit and stew in that groove for a little while, "Driving Me Too Hard" doesn't outstay its welcome.

10. "Tell Me Straight"

In a lot of ways, Hackney Diamonds is like an alternate history of the last 35 years of the Rolling Stones. It sounds like where they'd be now if those years had gone completely differently. "Tell Me Straight" is the only track that owes a debt to anything that's happened since the early 80s. 1989's Steel Wheels closed with "Slipping Away" a song so good they've tried to repeat it on every album since, and "Tell Me Straight" is Hackney Diamonds' "Slipping Away" song.

Keith Richards often took on vocal duties, but always for dirty rockers like "Happy," "Before They Make Me Run," and "Little T&A," or twangy country ballads like "You Got The Silver." "Slipping Away" was different; it was a slow ballad sung by Richards, and his rough and cracked voice gave it heartbreaking gravitas. The "Slipping Away" copies were often the low points of the late-period albums, but "Tell Me Straight" avoids that same fate by not labouring the point or wallowing in misery.

Writing a song contemplative minor-key ballad that doesn't sound miserable is a tough balance.

And again, it doesn't overstay its welcome, in fact, it could be longer. It's not for nothing that Hackney Diamonds is a perfectly reasonable 48 minutes long, while the average length of previous late-period Stones albums was about six weeks.

11. "Sweet Sounds of Heaven"

There's a long list of guests on Hackney Diamonds, including Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, and Elton John, but for the most part, they don't have much impact. I struggled to hear Elton John on "Get Close", and Mick Jagger has to yell "come on, Paul" on "BIte My Head Off" to let us know that Paul McCartney is there. But "Sweet Sounds of Heaven" features Stevie Wonder and Lady Gaga, and it really is their song. The Stones are featured players on their own track.

"Sweet Sounds Of Heaven" is the longest song on Hackney Diamonds, and its run time is filled out by a section that's just Wonder and Lady Gaga, and it's probably the highlight of the album. The Stones deserve credit for pulling it all together and stepping back, but Lady Gaga's showstopping vocals demand the spotlight whether everyone else voluntarily steps back or not. When Jagger comes back in, and the two powerhouse voices begin to duel, it's breathtaking.

"Sweet Sounds of Heaven" is a gospel number, a spiritual successor to "Salt Of The Earth," except far more massive in scope.

12. "Rolling Stone Blues"

It's crazy to me that The Rolling Stones have been too old to be rock stars for almost as long as I've been alive! It's also an indication of how long they've been around. They've come a long way from the tinny blues covers of their first few records, and it's easy to forget that this is the same band who recorded "Carol," "Not Fade Away," and "It's All Over Now," so as a closing statement, Hackney Diamonds returns us to that past with "Rolling Stone Blues," the Muddy Waters track that gave them their name, and which they'd unbelievably not recorded until now.

It's a faithful modest cover that's bracing after the bombast of "Sweet Sounds of Heaven," but it's a joy to listen to.

I suspect this won't be the last Rolling Stones album. Sure, they can't have too many years left, but I wouldn't be surprised if Hackney Diamonds was part of a burst of creativity that produced enough material for at least one more LP. But if it is the last Rolling Stones album, then "Rolling Stone Blues" is an eerily perfect endcap to a career that's lasted longer than literally anyone thought was possible.

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