Rolling Stones – Exile On Main St.

I now enter into dangerous territory, because this is quite possibly my favourite record of all time. For a music fan on a scale such as the one by which I live, that’s a massive claim to make. Suffice it to say, if someone asked me that Deserted Island question about which 5 albums I’d take, this one would spring to my mind first over all others, by any band.

Anyway, I say this is dangerous territory because such albums should, if you ask me, be completely avoided by armchair reviewers and music fans like myself. I’m way too close to the subject, have too much invested in it. When an album is in your life so deeply, it’s probably wrong to try to tell others why this is so. It just doesn’t seem possible. Or perhaps I’m just afraid I’ll run out of adjectives.

Exile On Main Street sews up the Four Best Stones Records (in my opinion) series, and it does it with grandeur, style, a razor-sharp blade in hand and dirt under its nails. There are no tracks that are less than perfect, and as I said in my review of Sticky Fingers, it’s the natural extension of the Story Of The Stones as it was told by the band (via their music) as they straddled two decades.

Everything about this record just makes sense. It’s a full buffet of the styles they love to play with; blues, folk, rock, country, soul, you name it. It’s all here and it’s all inimitably their own. The musicianship is flawless, even when it hits points of sounding like it’s going to fall apart. But unlike the others records in this series, the vocals sound buried back into the mix with the instruments. You wouldn’t think this would have much of an effect, but it surely does here. With everything on a more even level, what emerges is a true group effort, and a swampy briliance that sums up the feel of the entire affair.

Much has been made about how this album was generally confusing to the people who bought it when it came out. Lots of people hated it (including Lester Bangs, who later recanted) and still today there are some who call it overrated. It was an ambitious double-album and, compared to their other recent records, there were no Huge Hits. The closest it came to that would probably have been Tumbling Dice, which disappointed the people who wanted another Satisfaction or whatever. It was too challenging for average listeners, I guess. Fools.

A long time back, I reviewed a book about the making of this record, and so we all remember from that review that that process was an entire story unto itself. But this end result of all of those elements is the culmination of the most fruitful and beautiful period in the history of the Stones. Here is where they made their stand, here is where everything finally came together and made sense. Here is a challenge to every other band who might dare to pretend to such heights. Hell, even the Stones themselves have never, in my opinion, quite gotten back up there since (I’m sorry to say).

I’ve been playing this record for many years, and I always feel like I’m greeting an old friend when it starts to play. The kind of friend who’s been through the wringer enough times (and crashed on your couch as a result) to know where you keep everything in your kitchen cupboards, and to know that they’re welcome to help themselves to whatever they find there (and they always do). And still, after all that time, my ears pick out new little riffs, bent notes or drum shuffles that I maybe didn’t take notice of before, that make it sound fresh and new too. That, to me, is the perfect album right there. It’s the unexpected blooming in the middle of such familiar, brilliant sounds.

I. Love. This. Record.

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