Classic Rock Review

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The Rolling Stones Bridges To Babylon (1997)


Now don’t blame me. The hype was enormous, the tour was great, and most of the songs here are just fine. But overall I wouldn’t think of this album as belonging to the Stones’ finest work. They sure do not stagnate, and they’re certainly willing to take a few risks and make a few experimentations, and the playing, singing, mix, and production are as flawless as possible. However, musically it’s not as strong as some make it out to be…

Voodoo Lounge has always been defined as the Keith album, what with all the retro production values, very few abuses of modern technologies and, well, just mainly the traditional “Stones formula” working its way through. On the contrary, the far more experimental Bridges To Babylon is certainly a ‘Jagger’ album. Keith’s presence here is definitely felt, as most of the guitar riffs are trademark Mr Richards; but the ‘aura’ of the songs, many of them dark and dreary, strongly reeks of Jagger, and where Voodoo Lounge tended to avoid trends, Bridges jump into the whole Nineties’ nightmare with gusto.

That said, Keith does get to have as much as three of his own “solo” numbers on here – no mean feat for the man, who had so far been strictly and severely limited to two. None of these are rare gems, though, a la ‘Slipping Away’. ‘You Don’t Have To Mean It’ is a rather dull reggaeish whine, monotonous to the point of hysteria and abysmally produced at that, with the voices and instruments merging together to give one a headache. And the closing two tracks – ‘Thief In The Night’ and ‘How Can I Stop’ belong to the same Keith-unmelodic-wailing-dustbin that has already accumulated so many of his so-called ‘ballads’. I’ll have to repeat it again: I am an active believer in Keef’s utter sincerity and everything, and I have no problems whatsoever with his ragged singing, but what I need is a melody. Keef is a master of riff, both loud and brash and thin and subtle; why it is so tremendously hard for him to write an interesting and outstanding melody when it comes to ballads is way, way beyond me. Oh well, at least ‘How Can I Stop’ is slightly touching and nostalgic, with a warm, lush sax solo towards the end, and I’m not willing to make a punch about the title. Even more, I’d say that it was a sly move to put the song at the end – that way, if Bridges To Babylon for some reason turns out to be the Stones’ last studio album, the final notes of ‘How Can I Stop’ will always… ah, well, you know. I can feel ’em tears jerking up already. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why they usually end up all their albums with nostalgic introspective Keith ballads.

But enough about Keith. Mick is captain-in-chief on the rest, and it produces mixed results. On one hand, we have a couple of good old ferocious dark rockers – the opening ‘Flip The Switch’ is, as they boast, the fastest song they ever recorded (for some reason, though, it still sounds slower than ‘Rip This Joint’ to these ears), and ‘Too Tight’ is certainly an improvement over ‘Too Tough’. ‘Flip The Switch’ is, in fact, the ultimate late period Stones rocker – I mean, the sight of Jagger flying his hair around and producing evil grins as he shouts ‘what would it take to bury me? I can’t wait, I can’t wait to see!’ on stage sure was one of the most dramatic moments of the tour.

The ballad ‘Already Over Me’ is a cross between ‘Almost Hear You Sigh’ from Steel Wheels (grandiosity) and ‘Fool To Cry’ (subtleness) and is thus quite good. Late period Stones’ ballads have rarely been able to fascinate me – they definitely lost the golden touch after spending most of the Eighties in gutsy raunchiness – but this is a rare and treasurable exception, with a fascinating vocal delivery from Mick. He stands so close to the mike that you get to scrutinize every single subtle detail in his vocals, which is simply grand; in fact, Mick’s singing and particularly the mixing of his voice on Bridges is definitely the best since God knows when. Unfortunately, ‘Already Over Me’ is still an exception – on the album’s second ballad, ‘Always Suffering’, Mick tries to pull an ‘Out Of Tears Part II’ and fails, with the song going for atmosphere rather than for a firmly planted hook.

The more experimental numbers are also fifty-fifty. On one hand, Mick gets a winner with the magnificent ‘Out Of Control’, a song that’s a definite must for any Stones fan with enough self-respect. The way the band alternates slow dark sections with fast crashing rockin’ moves, the stop-and-starts, the wild harmonica break, it’s all ace, although it would be fair to say the song didn’t really come to full life until the stage performance (my theory is that anybody who sees the Rolling Stones perform ‘Out Of Control’ on stage, even on tape, will never again resort to using the expression ‘old farts’ in their address, nor will he or she ever say a stupid phrase like ‘why don’t they finally go their own ways?’). Plus, he gets even more adventurous with the synth-led “slow-technofest” ‘Might As Well Get Juiced’ which I used to hate but now love dearly – the ‘juiced-up’ bass line and Mick’s slowly ‘melting’ vocals are a marvel. The song almost reminds me of Peter Gabriel, and it’s the closest the Stones ever got to becoming “alternative”, whatever that means.

On the other hand, a particularly low point includes the hit single ‘Anybody Seen My Baby’ which is just so 90’s-like and so un-Stones-like I can hardly stand it. The generic bass, the idiotic ‘rap section’, everything about the song is so stinkingly commercial… ugh. This is clearly an example of Mick trying to get the younger generation into the Stones… all he got was a dumb younger generation straddling through the streets chanting ‘anybody seee-eeen myyy baaaaa-by?’. I daresay not too many of these kids ever decided to try out Let It Bleed after this memorable event.

The rest of the tracks are okay – ‘Gunface’ features ‘disco rock’ or ‘funk rock’, if you prefer it, and has a strangely annoying metallic guitar tone, ‘Saint Of Me’ is not bad, but hardly the next ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ as has been proclaimed by Stones fans. And the guitars on ‘Lowdown’ just don’t seem Keith-ish to me… more Aerosmith than the stones.

Like I already said, the atmosphere here is much darker than on Voodoo Lounge, which is rather surprising especially since everything else was so good and bright – the expectations, the tour, etc. But Mick isn’t a very ‘bright’ guy in any case, if you know what I really mean. That said, I am in no way trying to diminish the record’s importance; frankly speaking, I doubt they could have made a better album than this at such a time. It has many flaws, but it has one big advantage: the Stones are still able to make records that would manage to sound musical and melodic, on one side, and hit all the right contemporary nerves, on the other. Not that they’re setting any trends or anything; they’re following them. But it’s one thing to follow a trend blindly, and another thing to make a tasteful, intelligent, and, on the whole, worthy album as Bridges. And hey there, I’d be the first to put ‘Flip The Switch’, ‘Out Of Control’, and ‘Already Over Me’ into the Golden Fund of the Stones, so this alone should probably say something.

March 3, 2013 - Posted by | The Rolling Stones Bridges To Babylon |

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