It’s tempting to view the Rolling Stones‘ new album, Hackney Diamonds, as a send-off, an unexpected encore, a final tip of the hat. Mick Jagger is 80, after all, and it’s been 18 years since their last LP of original material. But the best compliment I can give Hackney Diamonds is that it doesn’t sound like an ending. It doesn’t sound like an excuse for another world tour. It doesn’t sound like product. It sounds like a great band making a good record well past the point when we thought it was no longer possible.
None of the 12 songs on Hackey Diamonds will go down as a Rolling Stones classic, but the material is much stronger than 2005’s A Bigger Bang. Highlights include the slow country honk of “Dreamy Skies”, the catchy mid-tempo “Driving Me Too Hard”, and “Get Close”, which features a quintessentially great Keith Richards guitar riff. Producer Andrew Watt (who came by recommendation from Paul McCartney) gives the album an appealing contemporary sheen without feeling too slick. Watt finds just the right balance as he modernizes the Rolling Stones’ sound without losing their essential grittiness.
That grittiness is further evidenced by the title of the record. Mick has explained that “Hackney Diamonds” is a “type of slang, like when you get your windscreen broken on Saturday night in Hackney, and all the bits go on the street… that’s ‘Hackney Diamonds'”. Terrible cover artwork aside, it’s a clever title that also calls to mind one of the Rolling Stones’ last genuinely great songs, “Shattered”.
The record is full of high-profile guest appearances, including Elton John, fresh from his so-called final tour, adding piano to “Get Close” and “Live By the Sword”. Paul McCartney contributes a fuzzy bass solo to the energetic “Bite My Head Off”. Long-time Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman appears on “Live By the Sword”, reunited after 30 years with late drummer Charlie Watts, who recorded two tracks for the record before his death in 2021. Stevie Wonder, rarely seen or heard since a kidney transplant in 2019, provides a soulful keyboard solo at the climax of the gospel powerhouse “Sweet Sounds of Heaven”, which also prominently features Lady Gaga on vocals.
The somewhat generic opening track “Angry” is the first single from Hackey Diamonds, but the seven-minute “Sweet Sounds of Heaven” is the song getting the most attention from critics and listeners. It’s bloated, bombastic, overdone, and too long – just too much. But I couldn’t help but feel grateful and impressed by the sheer ambition of the tune. Lady Gaga channels Merry Clayton’s famous vocals on “Gimme Shelter”, and while she comes up short in the spine-tingling contest, she and the Rolling Stones certainly can’t be faulted for effort.
The whole album feels like the band are genuinely interested and engaged. Too many Rolling Stones records over the past 30 years have felt half-hearted and left the listener wondering why they even bothered. Not so with Hackney Diamonds – the Stones sound like they actually care, and that emotional investment carries the day. Keith and Ronnie (do we really need last names?) still have excellent guitar interplay after more than four decades together. Mick’s full-throated vocals sound as vibrant as ever, and drummer Steve Jordan fits in admirably on the tracks recorded after Charlie’s death.
It wouldn’t be a Rolling Stones album without the obligatory Keith vocal, and Hackney Diamonds delivers a good one with the mournful, stripped-back “Tell Me Straight”. Keith asks, “How do we finish? How do we start?” When he sings, “I need an answer, how long can this last?” you begin to think the grizzled veteran might still be doing this in the next decade.
A sense of coming full circle is provided by the closing track, a rootsy, no-frills cover of Muddy Waters‘ “Rolling Stone Blues”, the track from which they took their name and a song from one of the albums that Mick was carrying when he and old schoolmate Keith ran into each other at a train station in 1961 and decided to form the greatest rock band in the world. But Hackney Diamonds may not be a final statement. The Rolling Stones apparently have another dozen or so songs from these sessions that will comprise a second record at some point in the future. As Mick sings on “Whole Wide World”, “You think the party’s over, but it’s only just begun.”