March 4, 2004

The Repeat Button: The Rolling Stones

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The self-proclaimed world’s greatest rock and roll band was always at their best when they didn’t give a damn, so it’s no surprise that they’re most attractive when announcing their own incompetence. The Stones usually have problems writing love songs that aren’t ballads, where the affection is more for the beauty of the composition than it is for its ostensible subject. The tracks on Exile on Main Street are the exception to the rule, every one of them a love song, if only for the proliferation of transcendent, intoxicating moments and the genuine joy with which each is performed.

“Loving Cup,” in particular, is full to the brim with drunken tenderness. The whole song is the embodiment of the evening’s third beer: the powerful lack of inhibition, giddy love of everything, sloppy grace, and words chosen more for sound than sense. It’s an exercise in the centrifugal force of percussion, as the entire accidental arrangement swirls around Charlie Watts’s implacable drumming. The whole mix is muddy, but the bright snapping drums and the low, warm piano are right out front, keeping time for everyone. Yet there’s a carelessness — a sort of shrugging self-effacement — to the lyrics: “Well I’m fumbling/ And I know my car don’t start/ Yes I’m stumbling/ And I know I play a bad guitar.” Of course we know full well that no one’s played a bad guitar in this band since 1962, but the line works because it’s sung with the equivalent of a rueful half-smile, letting the cadence of the words themselves and the pace of the music guide Jagger’s delivery. The result is that his every shout and drawl become a part of the whole instead of distracting from it, twining around Richards’s hoarse backing vocals until their mismatched voices blend perfectly. In the end, the whole sweaty French basement builds not so much to a climax as a helpless affirmation of a joyous shout: “What a beautiful buzz/ What a beautiful buzz/ What a beautiful buzzzzzzzzzz.” And the boast becomes nothing but the truth: world’s greatest rock and roll band.

Archived article by Erica Stein