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