Graded on a Curve:
Mick Jagger,
Primitive Cool

How do the monied classes spend their time? Well, some of them take up fox hunting, build collections of great art, or buy yachts. Others breed thoroughbred race horses, take up philanthropy or wile away their evenings playing baccarat at the casinos in Monte-Carlo, Baden-Baden, and Macau. Yet others collect ex-wives. One thing they do not do is record solo albums. They’re far too well-bred to impose their neuroses on their lessers.

Mick Jagger is one of the exceptions. Everybody’s second favorite Rolling Stone has raked in enough money over the years to buy Dubai, but some rather unsavory nervous tic–a determination to prove he can make it out on his own? some insatiable need for attention? a desire to further pad his bank account?–keeps inducing poor Mick to release albums with his name on them. It’s an innocuous enough impulse, some would argue. To these people I would say try sitting through one.

Albums such as Jagger’s 1987 release Primitive Cool needn’t necessarily be exercises in solo self-gratification. They afford pampered lead singers of Jagger’s calibre the chance to stretch out, and explore new musical territory far from the terra firma they staked out with the bands that won them fame and fortune. Solo albums give the Jaggers of the world the opportunity to jump in on the Albanian folk song craze, bring in some pan pipers, or make that long dreamt of soul or R&B move. Or take on, god help us all, the American Songbook. Unfortunately, most of them put out albums that sound suspiciously like, but not as good as, the albums their bands put out.

Jagger tries to avoid this trap, he really does. Songs like “Say You Will,” “War Baby” and the title track sound very little like Rolling Stones songs. The problem is they suck. The demoralizing truth about Primitive Cool is that the songs that work best (“Throwaway,” “Shoot Off Your Mouth,” “Peace for the Wicked”) are the ones that adhere most closely to the tried-and-true Jagger-Richards formula.

Which is to say that Primitive Cool, while not a total exercise in superfluity, is a failure. Jagger avoids pointlessness only by compromising his gifts. Ask him to do something new and wonderful and different, and what you get is mediocrity. The man would have been better off falling back on the American Songbook.

Jagger and Company seem to have put more time into manipulating the sound of these songs than they did with the songs themselves, and not unsurprisingly the result is an album that’s as well produced as it is musically vapid. The big drum thump of the time annoys, especially on “Let’s Work” and “Say You Will.” “Radio Control” is proof that the last refuge of an aging roue is the studio mixing board. The Uilean pipes on the otherwise palatable ballad “Party Doll” are an exercise in overkill. And don’t even get me started on the Gregorian chanting and unedifying synthesizers of “War Baby,” which I can only describe as a Peter Gabriel song gone horribly, horribly wrong.

If the Stones, at their best, sound natural; if, on their best songs and records you get the sense that their music has nothing to do with superproducers or studio wizardry or calculated attempts to utilize the latest in gadgetry or gimmicks; if they seem to be making no attempt to sound up to date, then Primitive Cool is the very antithesis of a good Rolling Stones record.

I have no doubt whatsoever that Jagger boned up on the latest styles and advancements in recording technology before recording Primitive Cool, and (not surprisingly) the results are neither. Is the sound immaculate? Yes. Timeless? Anything but. Primitive Cool makes you want to scream, “It’s the songs that matter Mick! The songs!” As I’m sure he figured out in hindsight, when none of the three singles from Primitive Cool made much of a dent on the pop charts. Even those listeners well-disposed to buy Jagger’s product out of a knee-jerk affection for his legendary band found them easy to resist.

Primitive cool? Mick would have been better off borrowing a book title from Turgenev and calling it The Diary of a Superfluous Man. Primitive Cool neither adds to nor diminishes Jagger’s legacy as one of rock’s greats–it’s too trifling to tilt the scales one way or the other, and stands only as a testament to the man’s adamantine self-regard. Why would anyone listen to this record when there are plenty of great Rolling Stones albums out there? Who bought this overblown vanity project? Just how much money did Columbia Records sink into this unseemly display of untrammeled ego?

At least Keith Richards’ LPs have novelty value; with that horrifying rasp of his, you can enjoy the spooky experience of listening to a wraith. Jagger, on the other hand, just sounds desperate. Mick should take a cue from his superwealthy contemporaries, who know better than to air their more embarrassing ambitions before their social inferiors.

It’s so… déclassé.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D

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