Graded on a Curve:
The Rolling Stones,
Goat’s Head Soup

By anybody else’s standards a very good LP; coming as it did on the heels of Exile on Main Street, a colossal disappointment. And this despite a few top-notch songs. For The Rolling Stones 1973’s Goat Head Soup was the beginning of the end; the title of It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll about says it all, and Some Girls was less a last gasp than a death rattle. After that, the abyss.

All great bands have their golden age, and with the Stones that golden age lasted from 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet to 1972’s Exile on Main Street. Inside those bookends were 1969’s Let It Bleed and 1971’s Sticky Figures–masterpieces all. This four album run–five if you consider Get Yer Ya-Yas Out!, which I don’t–beats The Beatles and put them in a dead heat with Bob Dylan. But as with the Beatles and Dylan, all good things come to an end.

How do I adjudge Exile on Main Street to be a great album, and Goats Head Soup but a good one? Simple. While every single song on Exile is engraved upon my memory, for the life of me I can never remember what such songs as “100 Years Ago,” “Coming Down Again, “Hide Your Love,” and “Can’t You Hear the Music” even sound like. It would be unfair to call them forgettable, but I’ll be damned if I can remember them.

On Exile the Stones ripped that joint, let it loose, then scraped the shit right off their shoes. On Goats Heads Soup they sound, well, enervated. Weary, or even worse, complacent. Like a band resting on its laurels. The LP has a couple of excellent slow ones on it, but ballads were never the Stones’ forte; they made their bones playing a raunched-up variant on American rhythm and blues, and on Goats Head Soup the raunch is missing in action.

They do their best to generate some electricity with “Dancing with Mr. D,” “Heartbreaker,” and “Star Star.” But they’re hardly Exile-quality material. “Dancing with Mr. D”’s bump and grind is nice, but does anybody believe that Mick Jagger was still dancing with death? Too busy doing the celebrity circuit. Jagger’s wakes up for the choruses of “Heartbreaker,” but the Stones’ attempt at social commentary strikes a false note. And while “Star Star” stands as one of the most salacious songs Jagger-Richards will ever write, take away that outrageous “fuck a star” (x5) and what have you got? A pretty good Chuck Berry rip and a Mick Jagger who’s going through the motions. He might as well be reading the lines, “gonna make you scream all night” from a teleprompter.

And Jagger’s complacency is contagious. The performance on “Silver Train” is perfunctory, the production clear but disappointingly thin. Jagger was unhappy with the muddy production on Exile, but “Silver Train” could use some muddying up. “Hide Your Love” is slow-filtered filler. The inexplicably Middle Eastern tinged “Can You Hear the Music,” same deal–the chorus is nice, but the Exile on Main Street Stones would have relegated it to the cast-off pile.

“Coming Down Again”–the album’s third and least successful ballad–opens with some Elton John-school piano and then proceeds to drag. “100 Years Ago” is aural wallpaper until Mick Taylor–the Stones’ unfairly ignored secret super genius whose talents aren’t much on display here–kicks things into gear towards the end. “Call me lazybones,” sings Mick, and he’s ain’t fooling. He sounds like he’s phoning his vocals in–from bed.

Which leaves “Angie” and “Winter.” The former’s been played to death and I’ll be damned if I have anything original to say about it. “Winter” stands alongside Rod Stewart’s “Mandolin Wind” as the best ever rock ’n’ roll song about miserable weather, ever. Jagger’s lyrics (“And I wish I’d been in California/When the lights on all the Christmas trees went out/But I been burnin’ my bell, book and candle/And the restoration plays have all gone ‘round”) are perhaps his best since “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

Goats Head Soup stands up as a good album, but it also marks the demise of the World’s Greatest Rock ’n’ Roll Band. The late great Lester Bangs said of the LP, “There is a sadness about the Stones now, because they amount to such an enormous ‘So what’?” At their peak the Stones leered and swore and spit in the face of decency, authority and prudishness, and by doing so became rock ’n’ roll’s greatest band of outlaws. On Goats Head Soup they stand for nothing, and expend their once indomitable energy on a small handful of good songs. Dance with Mr. D, and there’s no where to go but the grave.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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