For Your (Re)Consideration is a feature in which I revisit some older work – one perhaps overlooked, perhaps familiar to the point of forgetting its content – and try to reconsider it with an unsullied perspective.
Here’s the strange thing about The Rolling Stones’ album Exile on Main St.: The Stones have never been an “album” band, per se. As a “singles” band they’re unparalleled – putting together a collection of only their undeniably classic songs could easily fill two or three CD’s. But they never really had their Sgt. Peppers; their The Wall; their Thriller – some singular album that defines them. But ask those who know what their best album is, and generally people will say it’s Exile. The funny thing is, though, that none of their big hits are on it. None. There are a couple that are fairly well-known (the two singles off of it were “Tumbling Dice” and “Happy”) but to someone who’s merely a casual fan – as I was when I first came across it – it really doesn’t seem like it could be their greatest. In fact, as someone who, in his foolish youth, was way too alternative and gen-x to really give the Stones fair attention (well, everyone’s heard of them, so they simply can’t be interesting, or worth being that in to!), I didn’t even give it more than a cursory listen, thinking that someone must have given me a bum steer. But they hadn’t. And when I finally came back to it I was hooked.
Is it their best album? Yeah. It is. Yes, that’s debatable; yes, Some Girls; yes, yes, yes.
What’s not debatable is just what a solid, beautiful rock album it is – perfect in that rock & roll way of being flawed in the right ways even. In addition to not having any of their signature songs on it, though, it also doesn’t have that quintessential guitar/Jagger sound that you think of when you first think of the band. It’s really almost more of a Keith Richards album than anything else, in many ways. Bluesy, R&B, even gospel; more Richards-introverted than Jagger-extroverted. In fact, listen to the mix, and what you’ll notice almost straight away is that on most of the cuts your can barely hear Jagger’s vocals over the other instruments and back-up vocals. His singing is merely another instrument (which, as you might imagine, Jagger has always hated about the album).
It’s also well known for how it was recorded – tracks hidden from earlier producers, recorded on the run from tax problems in England, and in particular the sessions recorded in Nellcote, France. A makeshift studio in Keith Richards’ basement, with musicians coming and going – this mix of fluid creativity, and the elements of drug use eroding at the cohesiveness of the band. The songs are also about the world they’re in – making it not just one of the greatest rock albums, but the album itself – in its subject matter and manner of recording – is one of the greatest albums that is rock & roll. You listen to it and you know, start to finish, that you’re hearing the real thing.
If you know it, break it out again. If you vaguely remember it, it’s time to get fully acquainted. If you’ve never really heard it, now’s the time. It’s a classic for a reason. It is as good as we think it is.