“Happy”, included on the Rolling Stones’ album Exile on Main Street is one of their great songs, and Keith Richards does a superb job singing. Richards, in fact, is very much the credible singer, having a hoarse, whispering croak of a voice that marries his blues and country influences. There is a measure of palpable emotion as the guitarist’s haggard voice stretches for a note that might not be his to possess, something like the battered working stiff who finds new reserves of inspiration when inspiration makes him forget the weight of his day and declare that there is in his life that’s worth standing up for. This is a singer whose talents would have blended to excellent effect with the rustic tones of the Bands’ Levon Helm and Richard Manual. I’ve been listening to Exile on Main Street lately, and it’s amazing how this album just seems to deepen with the years: it’s one of those great releases whose basic roots-music emphasis places it in the considerable company such the early Band records or Moby Grape
It’s a tough call because both Exile and The White Album have strengths that are unique. Preference, though, falls with The Beatles, since it’s an unusually strong double disc of songs, featuring Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison at their zenith. The variety and quality clench it. Exile has the appeal of mood, atmosphere, the ennui that the bands’ world-weariness had caught up with them, to which the response is an inspired re-investigation of their roots in American southern music. I believe that this as honest a music Jagger and Richards have ever made together (or as honest as Jagger has ever been), but whether the two discs are real emotion or skilled posing, the tone and mood of the album can’t be denied. It is their last great album. I’d say Electric Ladyland needs to be in the top five best double-albums ever released (rock/pop division) for the consistent genius in all areas, start to finish: Hendrix was hitting what might have been a long stride as a major songwriter, his guitar work had never been more inventive and searing than it was here, and the production is near-flawless, with the guitars and such adding something of a grand religiosity to the proceedings
The point, though compressed, isn’t mysterious, nor coded in arcane jargon: after the wide-ranging and successful experimentation with sundry styles that reached a slick, professional peak with Sticky Fingers, Exile was a re-examination of some of the forms that were the basis of their own music, namely rhythm, and blues, straight up blues, gospel, country. It’s all there, I do believe. The mix was muddy, not clear, creating what one perceptive writer called an air of “audio noir”, and the band sounded tired but fully invigorated by some spark of energy, some keen sense of mission that made their grooves and beats sound fateful. The additional layer on Exiles’ re-imagining of the foundations of the bands’ sounds was the experience and cogency they applied to the subject matter, the splintery, inane and unchanging truths that fairly inform the lyrics.
Beggar’s Banquet, the album which was their best expression of how drugs and other excesses might lead to worldly wisdom (or at least an artful cynicism) was in line with the general hedonism that was the hallmark of the hippie-movement, wherein one trusted the resilience of youth to bring them back from the edge they danced very close to: gross consumption and gratification of ones’ senses was the by-word, and Banquet handily defined the period, albeit its dark, mean-humored side. Exile had the sound of a band whose high-living had caught up with them. This feeling, this sound, is a large part of what distinguishes this album from the albums that came before it. You might try actually listening to the album.” Torn and Frayed”, “Stop Breaking Down”, “Sweet Virginia”, “Ventilator Blues”, “Shine a Light”, “Soul Survivor”, even the bouncy and rocking “Happy” all, in their own manner, reflect a sense of pausing, getting a breath, contemplating the ache at the end of long cycle of over-extension. These are not the same kinds of songs as earlier ones, ala “Satisfaction”,” Get off My Cloud”, “Play With Fire”, “Stupid Girl” or “Street Fighting’ Man”, potent rock and roll numbers that match a younger, more impatient and more arrogant psychology: the songs on Exile work so well precisely because the mood of the band was more somber, reflective, wizened with wear. Jagger and Richards were at the peak of their craft on this set, and the songs have a tangible moodiness, a real set of expressions that add up to a more cautious, and increasingly wised-up worldview that tacitly, and explicitly comprehends the fleeting quality of mortal life.
It’s not far to suggest that this album is the best album regarding the extended effect of decadence on a bohemian community, along with Lou Reed’s blisteringly and claustrophobic Berlin. The production of Berlin fits the ideas: the characters are decadent, the city and the period were decadent overall, and the production is, I think, suitable for the terrain Reed covers here. A big, thick wall-of-sound, Phil Spector filtered through Bertolt Brecht. Reed was writing about his own popular culture indirectly in the way he wrote of his fictional wastrels on Berlin, but the music and lyrics are etched from what he’s done and witnessed. The production works, and this album is an underrated masterpiece from the Seventies