The Rolling Stones' Blue & Lonesome is a return to the band's blues core: What took them so long?

Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri

Dec,03 2016 09:17 09 IST

As the last strains of Willie Dixon’s I Can’t Quit You Baby concludes the album Blue & Lonesome, Mick Jagger asks, “Was that okay?” Over 50 years of helming a band that is among the world’s greatest and longest serving rock bands, The Rolling Stones’ 73-year-old frontman still yearns for validation. And why shouldn’t he?

This studio album releases 11 years after the band’s A Bigger Bang ended in a whimper, and the band spent much of its time on the road, performing at massive world tours.

So for a band that in its very DNA is a blues one, the recent release of Blue & Lonesome is a milestone of sorts. It’s a return to the band’s blues core, it’s the band’s first all-blues album, and their first all-covers album. Yet their greatest achievement with Blue & Lonesome is the uninhibited return of their raw mojo in what is essentially a passionate ode to the sounds and singers who inspired them in their formative years.

And with each listening of the album, you can’t help but wonder: What took them so long?

The Rolling Stones' new album 'Blue & Lonesome' comes 11 years after their previous album, 'A Bigger Bang'

The Rolling Stones' new album 'Blue & Lonesome' comes 11 years after their previous album, 'A Bigger Bang'

After all, The Rolling Stones were instrumental in making blues a major part of the rock and roll grammar, taking it from its humble unrefined trappings and giving it stadium-worthy finesse. With Beggars Banquet (1968), Let It Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1971) and Exile on Main St(1972), The Rolling Stones rewrote blues-inspired rock and roll with a vigour and zeal that they’ve come to typify.

So when in the winter of their career, the band puts out an album like Blue & Lonesome, it would be thoughtless and premature to think of it as creative deficiency. Eleven years is not all that long for a band to come up with originals, but the question that ought to be asked is, did they want to?

Blue & Lonesome sounds like three days of fun in a studio where a band of musicians wanted to do nothing but jam. So where do they begin? Let’s start with some comfort stuff, they think. And when musicians want comfort stuff, they go back to the artists who influenced their decision to be musicians in the first place. Comfort music is like comfort food. It can’t wrong you, it makes you feel warm and fuzzy, and it can most certainly inspire you.

So Blue & Lonesome is a 42-minute doffing of the band’s hat to the music of Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon, Eddie Taylor, Little Walter, Buddy Johnson, Memphis Slim and Howlin’ Wolf in 12 songs. Recorded in December last year at Mark Knopfler’s British Grove Studios in West London, the album also sees Eric Clapton guesting on Everybody Knows About My Good Thing and I Can’t Quit You Baby.

A cynic may see this as an easy way out to put together an album. But is it? Let’s be clear on a few fronts. The Rolling Stones were never a band of prodigies who have mastered their craft. But their infectious passion coupled with their unfailing ability to be incredibly tight has made them a favourite.

Mick Jagger is no Freddie Mercury; with a decent range and ordinary voice quality, Jagger rose to fame purely for what he could do with those vocal chords while bobbing across the stage for hours. Yet he strove to hit notes that didn’t seem likely, acing them on most occasions. In Blue & Lonesome, Jagger of them all, sounds most delighted to “return home” to the blues, particularly in the title song. From growling longingly to wistfully wondering, Jagger — supported by his deft harmonica playing — sounds free of the shackles of musical commerce and seems to be genuinely enjoying the genre. It isn’t an album driven by strategy, reeking of a convenient alliance; it’s an amorous reminder of a three-day affair with an ex-girlfriend... the “one that got away”. And if there’s one thing Jagger owns with complete authority, it’s the ability to vocalise romance.

But this isn’t just some Jaggernaut alone, although the album does seem tipped heavier towards the frontman. The Glimmer Twins are entrenched in the sound of this album with Keith Richards providing the perfect guitar solos in songs like Little Johnny Taylor’s Everybody Knows About My Good Thing. Exemplifying the dry humour and pathos that comes with Chicago Blues, Richards along with Ronnie Wood, do some taut guitar-playing in songs such as Hate to See You Go and Hoo Doo Blues.

In a year that has seen original works from contemporaries like David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Eric Clapton, younger contemporaries like Sting and Bruce Springsteen, and fellow stadium draws like Green Day and Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Rolling Stones’ Blue & Lonesome is not some kind of definitive album. Neither is it an unconfirmed swan song.

The band chemistry in the studio takes you back to the 60s and makes you feel like they still have what it takes to be the legendary band that they have become. Blue & Lonesome doesn’t feel like a “season finale”, to use television parlance. It is a robust appetiser to an album of originals they still have in them.

Don’t be quick to think that Blue & Lonesome plays to the fan gallery; it is as much a fan’s album as it is a band’s album. There's every reason for the band to be creatively satiated with the album. “Was that okay?” asked Jagger at the end of the album. That’d be a resounding yes. Blue & Lonesome might just be The Rolling Stones’ most inspired work in a long, long time.

The author runs a content consultancy firm, after ending her decade-long stint with The Asian Age as senior editor. In her free time, she learns to play the bass.