Steel Wheels (1989)
The Rolling Stones really painted themselves into a corner with their eclecticism. The standard formula for a comeback is a return to the basics. But what would a return to the basics look like for the band who did everything from blues to psychedelia to disco to country to reggae and even put their best country song in the middle of their disco album? The Stones have been struggling with that question ever since their comeback began. The answer on Steel Wheels was to try a little of everything, while always returning to well-worn grooves and familiar riffs.
Steel Wheels’ strength is its willingness to hearken back to the Stones’ past. Its weakness is the fact that it defaults to a sort of non-descript mid-tempo rock sound, with just enough funk to satisfy people who get sore muscles from listening to George Clinton. That sound is unmistakably the Stones, yet it sounds like nothing from their heyday and has been their default sound ever since, with ever-diminishing returns.
But that default sound was still fresh then and produced a few good songs. "Between A Rock And A Hard Place" is about the best song that formula could have ever produced; it still sounds fresh. While "Continental Drift," with its "Sympathy For The Devil," energy is the mad genius experimental moment.
The other formula that Steel Wheels established was the Keith Richards soft rock ballad. Keith Richards frequently gets to sing lead vocals on one or two tracks, but before Steel Wheels, they were always dirty, sleazy blues rockers like "Happy" or "Before They Make Me Run" or Twangy blues ballads like "You Got The Silver." Steel Wheels ends with "Slippin’ Away," a soft meditative number that benefits from the sincerity of Richards’ voice. "Slippin’ Away" works well, but that same formula would be hit-and-miss going forward. Steel Wheels is pretty good, despite a lot of filler. Its biggest problem is that it set templates that got them stuck in a rut on later releases.