The Rolling Stones: A Bigger Bang

Steve Shymanik

The problem is the songs. They're just not very good.

The Rolling Stones

A Bigger Bang

Label: EMI
US Release Date: 2005-09-06
UK Release Date: 2005-09-05
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In all likelihood this is not the first review you've read of the Rolling Stones' new album, A Bigger Bang. The Stones are a publicity machine and reviews of the album have been ubiquitous. The critics have been overwhelmingly positive, highlighting the record's stripped-down, back-to-basics approach and calling it their best album since (fill in the blank)... Some Girls or Tattoo You or even (gasp!) Exile on Main Street.

We must remember, however, that over-the-top enthusiasm greeted the initial release of their last several albums (from Steel Wheels to Voodoo Lounge to Bridges to Babylon). Years ago, the critics were always telling us about the "new Dylan" (remember Steve Forbert?). Today, we have another routine: the Stones release a decent album of competent rockers and boozy ballads, the album sounds pretty good on the first couple of listens, and critics announce that THE STONES ARE BACK.

Well, the Stones never left. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. It's true that the band sounds particularly good on A Bigger Bang. Don Was provides the right production touch for a latter-day Stones album -- crisp and clean without being overly slick. They've trimmed away excess instrumentation and focused more heavily on the core band. Mick Jagger assumes a larger role musically, playing everything from slide guitar to harmonica to piano to percussion. (I'm not sure if Mick playing multiple instruments is good for the band's sound, but it does show a level of engagement that might have been missing from previous albums.)

The problem is the songs. They're just not very good. In fact, as a collection of songs A Bigger Bang ranks a notch below Wheels or Lounge or Babylon and nowhere close to Some Girls, their last truly great record. The riffs are generic, the melodies don't stick, and the lyrics are insipid. I know we don't listen to the Rolling Stones for lyrical brilliance, but they've reached a new high (or low) on the cliché meter.

The themes of the album, such as they are, can be told by strung-together clichés from the lyric sheet. We have "love in the air" and a man with his "back to the wall". He "walks the streets of love and they're full of tears". The poor man has been "once bitten, twice shy" which had him "flying like a bat out of hell". It's "been a month of Sundays" since he "hit the nail on the head". Finally he meets a woman, a "dangerous beauty" who "didn't mess around". Sure enough, "the going got too tough" and she had him "on the ropes".

Or how about this winner, from "Oh No, Not You Again":

Everybody's talking
Showing up their wits
The moon is yellow but I'm like jello
Staring down your tits

This is indicative of a deeper problem. You won't find lyrics this bad or cliché-ridden on early or peak-period Stones albums. Like nearly all great rockers, the Stones have always been posers -- whether as dirty bad-boy alternatives to the Beatles or misogynistic heartbreakers or Satanic hedonists. But buried within the pose always lied a certain level of self-awareness and sincerity. When Keith sang "Before They Make Me Run" on Some Girls, you could feel that it was genuine and personal.

Nothing on A Bigger Bang feels real to me. Instead, we get a very good rock-and-roll band posing as gracefully-aging elder statesmen making their "back to basics" album. All the elements are there: the grungy rockers ("Rough Justice", "Look What the Cat Dragged In"), old-school blues ("Back of My Hand"), Mick's heart-on-sleeve ballads ("Streets of Love", "Biggest Mistake"), and Keith's whiskey-voiced, closing-time lament ("This Place is Empty".)

With 16 tracks clocking it at more than an hour, the album feels simultaneously over-stuffed and empty. There are no new entries in the Rolling Stones' canon of great songs. "Rough Justice", the lead-off track and first single, is a nicely-done straight-ahead rocker, but no better than "Mixed Emotions" or "Love is Strong". The best might be "Let Me Down Slow", a countryish mid-tempo tune with excellent vocals and some fine slide guitar. The worst is undoubtedly "Sweet Neo Con", an easy swipe at George W. Bush that exhibits no depth whatsoever lyrically or musically. Whatever your politics, "Sweet Neo Con" is one of the band's worst-ever recordings and (thankfully) the only song ever to rhyme "certain" and "Haliburton".

Still.... A Bigger Bang is reasonably entertaining while it's playing, and maybe that's all we should expect. The rhythm section is tight, the guitars are loose and ragged, and Mick and Keith seem more in-sync than they have been for quite a while. But there isn't a single song on this record that I feel compelled to listen to again. I'll play it semi-regularly in the car for a couple of weeks and then I'll file it away where it belongs: right next to Voodoo Lounge and Bridges to Babylon.


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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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