Masters of the Form: The Rolling Stones, 1971 – Exile on Main St.

It sounds murky; swampy. It sounds as though the guitars are being played through your next door neighbor’s speakers while you listen to it in your living room. It sounds as though the vocals are being growled from underwater. It sounds muffled. It sounds well worn; lived in. Above all else though, Exile on Main St. sounds great.

With the release of Exile on Main St., the Rolling Stones capped off perhaps the most impressive streak in rock and roll history. Over the course of five years they had transformed themselves from another successful British rock band into masters of the form. The transformation had begun with the simplicity of 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet, continued with the authenticity of 1969’s Let It Bleed, and eventually grew into the audacious grandeur of 1971’s Sticky Fingers.

Sticky Fingers was a landmark album, the band’s best, and it had changed rock and roll forever. Sticky Fingers made the Rolling Stones a different kind of “big” than the world had ever seen; the kind of “big” that every other successful rock group is still compared to. After all, Sticky Fingers was so big it bulged from behind the crotch of an overstuffed pair of jeans. When it came time to record its follow-up in 1972, the band did the only thing they could do, the only thing anybody can do once their zipper has been pulled down. They let it all hang out.

Exile on Main St. is a sprawling mess of a masterpiece that comes up just shy of being the musical Technicolor bacchanalia of Sticky Fingers. The album sounds as though it is a reshoot of Sticky Fingers, Let It Bleed, and Beggar’s Banquet filmed entirely in grainy black and white. It’s like the Stones had recorded a career retrospective rather than a follow-up album, but they’d decided that their careers had started in 1968 and that their greatest hits album should be filled exclusively with new material.

Kicking off with a guttural, nasty “Oh yeah!”, “Rocks Off” puts the listener in the familiar Stones territory of guitar riffs and sex, but the song refuses to leap out at the listener, even when the horns blare through the chorus. The instruments sound as though they’re turned down, and the vocals are buried in the track. The song seems content to settle into place; a photo printed in sepia tone that needs to be looked at more than once to be fully appreciated. Some lyrics are unintelligible upon the first listen, but the Stones just roll on, unfazed. “The sunshine bores the daylights out of me”, Jagger sings as if he’s informing the listener that the pristinely produced brightness of Sticky Fingers is a thing of the past.

“Rip This Joint” certainly doesn’t sound like a recording of the world’s biggest rock band. The recording is loose and spontaneous, like a first take from the world’s greatest garage band that cared about getting a great take rather than a well-produced one. However, the take is great, and the album’s grit gives it and tracks like “All Down the Line” and “Ventilator Blues” an immediacy, a sense of life and everyman purpose, that would have been washed away by cleaner production.

The crackling distance of the production serves its quieter material particularly well. “Sweet Virginia”, one of the bands’ most authentic-sounding country songs, is more confession than song, strung out and fighting back tears as the dust blows right by, and the earthy production makes the song hurt a little more as Jagger tries to convince you to “drop your reds drop your greens and blues”. Likewise, the bare beauty of “Shine a Light” plants it firmly in the earth, even as its harmonies reach for heaven like gospel from the gutter in an attempt to “Make every song your favorite tune”.

“Happy” is a classic Keith Richards tune as heard through a pair of sunglasses. It has the riff, it has the slide guitar, it has the horns, and it has the sing a long chorus, but the whole song sounds a bit tinted. The vocal is yelped rather than sung, and the verses are nearly indecipherable. However, the tint takes nothing away from the track because all that really matters is the riff, the slide, the horns, and the chorus about needing love to be happy. “You got to roll me”, Jagger commands in “Tumbling Dice”, which declares itself a classic Stones tune with the first “Whoo” of the female backing vocals.

“Tumbling Dice” is a powerhouse, a perfect mix of blues, soul, and gospel. As sung by Mick Jagger’s shape-shifting voice, funneled through the Exile on Main St. tint, listening to the song is like reading a classic novel in a dimly lit room. Regardless of the light, though, Jagger’s right. You have to let it roll. It’s a miraculous performance — classic enough to be something that only the Stones could have written but in a dim enough room to make you think that almost anybody could have.

However, Exile on Main St. could have only been made by a band that had already recorded Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, and Sticky Fingers. It is the sound of those albums after they’ve begun to wear from being spun too many times. It was the fourth consecutive classic album that the Rolling Stones released from 1968-1972, an impressive winning streak that made the Stones Masters of the Form.

Others would follow…