December is the month for “Best Of” listicles. I did my “12 Best Albums” several weeks ago in an effort to beat the Christmas rush. Now I am sitting back and reading everyone else’s, and complaining about how wrong they are all, especially when it comes to the new Rolling Stones album.
Of course, this is entirely subjective, and I don’t really object to you putting something on your list that I think is mediocre. I may privately think less of you, but I have the good graces to keep that to myself. I do, however, feel compelled to comment on all these lists that have the Rolling Stones’ Hackney Diamonds prominently featured.
I’ll make this quick. Hackney Diamonds is not an especially good album. It isn’t a bad album either, but if anyone other than the Stones had released this collection of songs, it would garner a B- from critics and fans alike. Pretty good – sure. But one of the year’s best? Not even close.
I won’t do a song-by-song rehash, because that’s not why I’m here today. Suffice it to say that when Mick now sings about love and sex, it has about one-tenth the passion, energy, danger, and excitement that his best songs had. “Angry” was the first single and a lot of people seemed to like it. I’m not one of them. It’s OK, but you’ve got to be grading on a curve to call it great. That curve exists because everyone was so thankful the Stones released a collection of originals after so long, and that those originals were not embarrassing.
Mick Jagger created a diamond for Slow Horses
The other hit – “Sweet Sounds of Heaven” – is also a decent song, if somewhat overblown. Lady Gaga and Stevie Wonder show up, which makes it an event. But they don’t make it a great song.
Indeed the best tracks on Hackney Diamonds have little to do with romance. “Whole Wide World,” an anthem to the dirty old days is the best rocker on the album. “Live by the Sword” is a nice funky shuffle about living on the edge. And the closing track, a cover of Muddy Waters’ “Rolling Stone Blues,” with Mick on harmonica and Keith on guitar, is a true gem. Those songs may figure somewhere in the middle of a “hundred greatest Stones” list.
It makes for an OK album. Not a great one.
But, as I said, I did not come to bury the Stones. I came to praise.
I’m really just praising Mick here because while preparing Hackney Diamonds, Mick co-wrote and performed one of the best television theme songs of all time. If you have never seen Apple TV’s Slow Horses, stop what you are doing, borrow a friend's subscription (that’s a joke – I don’t condone that sort of thing), and watch an episode. It has three seasons of fabulously twisted espionage stories, and Gary Oldman in one of the truly great performances of recent television history – the seedy-but-brilliant spy chief Jackson Lamb.
And it has one kick-ass theme song sung by Mick Jagger.
“Strange Game” has music by Daniel Pemberton, who oversees the excellent music on the show, and lyrics and vocals by Jagger. Pemberton learned that Jagger was a fan of the source material – a series of spy novels by Mick Herron about the outcasts of MI5. Slow Horses is named for Slough House, where MI5 sends the screw-ups – the agents who have blown assignments or pissed off the wrong person. They are given the grunt work or worse. It is the purgatory of the espionage world. Oldman, as Lamb, presides over its operations.
Pemberton’s music is instantly enticing. Jagger described first hearing it and thinking old Kurt Weill-style music hall. Weil’s music always had a twisted heart, as if hearing a pop song while on a bad LSD trip. And the distorted stabbing guitar that opens “Strange Game” feels just like that.
Then Mick’s voice comes in. As on “Whole Wide World,” he is singing about failure and regret. About ending up on the losing side. This is something Mick can still do better than anyone. His lyrics have rarely been sharper:
“Surrounded by losers, misfits and boozers – Hanging on by your fingernails
You made one mistake, you got burned at the stake – You’re finished, you’re foolish, you failed”
He sings about getting another shot at glory – to “dance with the big boys again” – but everything about the track suggests this is a pipe dream. I mean, how many people really make it out of purgatory? As if to make the point extra clear, a ghostly echo seems to be backing him up.
Mick didn’t find an obvious chorus in Pemberton’s music, so he intones the title of the song teasingly, almost willing it into a chorus, which is joined by a tinkling piano, which keeps it grounded in that nightmarish music hall.
When David Chase found Alabama 3’s “Woke Up This Morning,” he gave The Sopranos its iconic opening theme music. Daniel Pemberton had to create his own iconic song. Fortunately, he found an energized Mick Jagger to collaborate with him.
“Strange Game,” far more than Hackney Diamonds, is Mick’s greatest achievement of the past decade.