Whether through personal enmity or advancing decrepitude, pretty much every new Rolling Stones album in the last 30 years has come with the unspoken caveat that it could – maybe, possibly – be their last. At this point, it’s barely a discussion worth having – experience tells us the Stones will keep rolling, while the laws of nature beg to differ; we’ll see who blinks first.
Yet ‘Blue & Lonesome’ – their first full- length since 2005’s ‘A Bigger Bang’ – almost seems to invite such speculation: what better way for a half-century-old musical institution to bring things full circle than an album of Chicago blues standards harking back to their earliest days?
More likely than not, of course, ‘Blue & Lonesome’ is just a product of convenient scheduling and a desire to strike while the iron was hot. These 12 tracks were recorded across three rapid-fire days during the downtime between tours, and sound less like a swansong than four old friends having an obscene amount of fun. The result is an album made for the sheer hell of it, devoid of frills, but not wanting for thrills.
You’d expect Keith Richards and Ron Wood to be in their element, and you can picture their Cheshire Cat grins as they trade licks with Eric Clapton on Little Johnny Taylor’s ‘Everybody Knows About My Good Thing’ and Willie Dixon’s ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’. Yet it’s Mick Jagger who elevates things above an all-star septuagenarian garage- jam, honking away furiously on Little Walter’s ‘I Gotta Go’ (it’s easy to forget what a wonderful harmonica player he is) and wringing every ounce of sexual frustration from the Memphis Slim-written title track. For a skinny bloke from Dartford, he was always blessed with a great voice for the blues; when he’s not jazz-handing and Jaggercising around a stage at the same time, he’s very much still got it.
As indeed do the Stones themselves. They’ve occasionally been guilty of embracing musical fads to reassert their relevance; it’s partly why they’ve endured for so long, though it’s also why records like ‘Undercover’ and ‘Dirty Work’ exist. By going back to the music that producer Don Was calls the “fountainhead of everything they do”, however, they sound younger than they have in decades. ‘Blue & Lonesome’ is proof that old dogs don’t always have need of new tricks.