[5 October 2007]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
The Very Best of Mick Jagger is the single most brainless, trashy, predictable and Top 40-aping album to be released in all of 2007.
Maybe that’s why it’s also one of the best.
Mick Jagger is the quintessential rock star: totally outrageous, frequently imitated, and sometimes crudely dismissed by critics as being more of a showman than a real songwriter. Of course, it’s hard to argue that last point when you’re listening to Exile on Main Street or Sticky Fingers or Their Satanic Majesties Request or Beggars Banquet or any one of the countless classic Rolling Stones discs that so frequently decorate those “Greatest Albums of All Time” lists. The Stones were making unabashed blues-rock while the Beatles’ were doing their experimental-pop thing, and both groups catered to entirely different demographics. Yet when the Fab Four threw in the towel at the start of the ’70s, the Stones knew it would be a time to truly establish themselves as the World’s Greatest Rock Band; a title they always lived by, but had a hard time fully proving in the wake of Sgt. Peppers. Of course, 1972 heralded the release of Exile on Main Street, one of the greatest rock albums ever made. What was unfortunate was the fact that—in many peoples’ eyes—it was also the last time that the Stones would ever be considered “relevant”. The real tragedy was that those many people were right.
As the years progressed, the Stones remained static: never progressing musically, despite doing crazy things like flirting with disco. For a band that defined so many trends in its hey-day, it was a sad sight to see them now becoming trend-followers in the most unimaginative way possible. Yet, this was somewhat to be expected: the greatness of those classic Stones’ tunes stemmed from the tension between Jagger and the world’s quintessential rock guitarist, Keith Richards. Naturally, both would release solo albums to keep themselves busy outside of the Stones’ ever-rigorous touring schedule. Richards’ records were very much solo Stones efforts: all bluesy guitar riffs and rock classicism. Jagger, however, took great pleasure in collaborating with all kinds of rock luminaries: from John Lennon to Peter Tosh, Rick Rubin to Lenny Kravitz, etc. He danced in the streets with David Bowie while dancing around different musical styles, always searching for a great pop harmony, and nothing more. Jagger’s first solo effort was the Ry Cooder-assisted “Memo from Turner”, a song from the 1970 film Performance (which Jagger also had a role in). His most recent batch of tunes stemmed from collaborating with Eurythmics’ guitarist Dave Stewart for the soundtrack to the 2004 Jude Law remake of Alfie. In between those, Jagger released four solo albums; all were fun, but none of them were knockouts. Yet, in compiling all those great individual moments together, we get a portrait of Jagger as a fun-loving radio-carnage ringleader. Purists would shout “Sell out!” Jagger shrugs and simply asks “So what?” The Hardest Working Lips in Showbiz are entitled to do whatever the hell they choose.
Very Best opens with “God Gave Me Everything I Want”, one of Jagger’s many “modern” collaborations on his pop-heavy 2002 effort Goddess in the Doorway. Produced and co-written with Lenny Kravitz, it sounds—shock and awe—like Mick Jagger singing a Lenny Kravitz song. Yet what’s apparent from the get-go is Jagger’s undeniable vocal presence: he absolutely launches into every performance, letting his personality shine through every note. In an age where rock vocalists are damn near interchangeable, it’s a relief to know that you will never ever mistake a Mick Jagger song for anything else. On the energetic, feel-good dance number, “Let’s Work”, (from the Dave Stewart-assisted Primitive Cool), even hearing Jagger say “mmmmmm” is a thrill in itself, as he sounds like he’s having the time of his life. Just as with “God Gave Me”, the lyrics are mostly trivial (“Can generosity / Bring humility?”), but “Work”—with its layers of staccato synths and full-blown “la la” choir—overcomes its lack of philosophical insight with its overabundant sense of sheer, unmistakable joy. It’s trashy, but boy, is it fun.
“Lucky in Love”—a gem from his 1985 debut She’s the Boss—is unabashedly ’80s: canned drum machines, tinny synths, hollow-sounding guitars, etc. It’s a song that couldn’t have been made in any other era, and were it not for its transcendent chorus, it would’ve merely been the product of many busy studio hands. Same goes for the disco-accented “Sweet Thing”, and what is (no doubt) the single most infamous moment of Jagger’s solo career: “Dancing in the Street”, a remake of the Martha and the Vandellas classic with none other than David Bowie. “Dancing” may be one of the worst songs ever made (and without question, the single worst music video of all time), but it’s so outrageously over-the-top that it manages to go from good to bad to guilty pleasure in no time flat. Few rock stars today would ever consider a project so ridiculous, but only one would not only agree to it with Bowie (all a part of Live Aid’s many crazed promotional efforts) but would also be willing to absolutely throw themselves into it 100%, and that star is Mick Jagger.
Mick Jagger and David Bowie - Dancing in the Street
Yet “Dancing in the Street” isn’t the only high profile collaboration Jagger would do (I mean c’mon—it’s Mick Jagger!). “Joy”—another buoyant pop number from Goddess—features Jagger swapping verses with none other than Bono, and the duo’s synergy works well. We’re also treated to the above-average mid-tempo rocker that is “Old Habits Die Hard”, one of Jagger’s collaborations with Dave Stewart (again) for the aforementioned Alfie soundtrack. It’s the song that also won Jagger a Golden Globe for some reason. It may not be his best number, but it certainly overshadows some of the low points on The Very Best of Mick Jagger: “Just Another Night” is pretty insipid (largely because it sounds exactly like Jagger trying to remake the song “Flashdance (What a Feeling)” and failing horribly), and Jagger’s solo ballads were never anything to write home about. It’s unfortunate that the set is closed with one of those lame-duck slow numbers; the less-than-memorable “Evening Gown”. Mick handles the country-swoon vibe well, but sometimes Jagger’s outsized personality just isn’t enough to save a song that was pretty poor to begin with.
The Very Best of Mick Jagger goes the standard compilation route by including three “previously unreleased performances.” What’s different about this particular compilation, however, is that said “unreleased performances” are all of high quality. “(You Got to Walk and) Don’t Look Back” is a cover of the Temptations’ classic with Peter Tosh, one of the first signed artists to the short-lived Rolling Stone Records imprint. It’s reggae-lite, but let’s face it, it’s pretty hard to screw up a Temptations song. “Charmed Life”—a reject from the 1993 Rick Rubin-helmed Wandering Spirit set—is dance-rock at its finest, and it segues seamlessly into the track list. Yet the most notable addition to Jagger’s canon is “Too Many Cooks (Spoil the Soup)”, a rejected number that was produced by John Lennon (of all people). The great news is that it’s an absolutely top-shelf track that rides on Motown-ready bassline and one of Jagger’s most outrageous vocal turns in history. For completists, it’s almost worth the price of admission alone.
By the time that The Very Best of Mick Jagger stops spinning, will you be empowered with new insights into the world around you? Of course not. Mick’s solo career is far from essential, but Jagger never once pretended that he was making “important” music with his solo records. He just wanted to have fun, and that carefree vibe can be heard in every rollicking note. The year 2007 could learn a lot from the Mick, because when it comes to having a good time, few discs are as perfect, flawless, or just plain fun as The Very Best of Mick Jagger.