Monday, December 08, 2008

Rock Bottom: The Rolling Stones

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources, the AllMusic Guide (for the critical point-of-view) and Amazon.com (for the fan perspective*). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not always agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect
that. I'll also offer a considered alternative. Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about Amazon.com. I consider this the fan perspective, because most people who choose to review albums on this site are adoring fans of the artist in question.

Confession: I don't like the Rolling Stones all that much.

I don't mean their music. I enjoy most of their singles. I went through a phase of fandom, during which I ponied up to see them play Soldier Field (it was 1997's Bridges To Babylon tour). I think Some Girls is a great album. I certainly appreciate their longevity and their place in rock 'n' roll history.

When I say I don't like them, I mean personally. I don't find either of their two principals, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, all that compelling. Besides the fact that Richards is still alive despite years of abuse to his body, there seems to be one unique storyline to the band's 45-year career: Mick and Keith fight but make beautiful music together.

Well, this Rock Bottom entry is about a time they did the former but forgot to do the latter. The year was 1986. The album was Dirty Work. Fans and critics agree that it's the Rolling Stones' lowest musical moment.

The All Music Guide actually gave it a mediocre-but-not-terrible 3 stars (3 other studio albums by the band also received the same rating); most of their 8 live albums ranked lower. But in his comments, Stephen Thomas Erlewine belies his rating by using the word "undistinguished" twice, along with "uneven", "dated", and "forced".
Rolling Stone typically worships the ground the band walks on, so much so that if Mick Jagger released an album of himself flushing every toilet in his mansion, the magazine's publisher, Jann Wenner, would write the review and give it 5 stars. But somehow Jon Pareles was allowed to be negative about Dirty Work. He called it a "Stones album for the yuppie era" though it's not clear whether or not he intended it as an insult. He also is clearly disappointed, pointing out that it doesn't live up to his high expectations as a fan, nor does it compare to the band's best work (always an unfair line of criticism, but an effective one nonetheless). Finally, he says the album "sounds like it was made on a deadline."

Fans on Amazon.com expressed their disappointment with Dirty Work in a myriad of ways. Mr. A. Pomeroy says, "In the context of the Rolling Stones' rich back catalogue it is a stunted little twig." Other fans were insular and obscure with their criticism. "This makes Goat's Head Soup look like Sticky Fingers," finulanu tells us. An anonymous reviewer takes it a bit further: "Dirty Work" he says, "makes Undercover look like Let it Bleed."

Finally, Christopher Bushman shouts out to this feature when he states that "the only good thing you can say about this record is that everyone, fans and band, realized it was rock bottom and they had nowhere to go but up."

Here's some background before I get to a review. Dirty Work was was the first album of a big shiny new deal with CBS records. It was released after three years of band inactivity and Mick Jagger's 1985 solo album, She's the Boss. Apparently Keith wasn't at all happy about Mick's straying from the band, and he was even less happy that the solo album was well-received. This exacerbated the tension between the two and made the Dirty Work sessions difficult. Most of the album was recorded without Jagger, who added lyrics and vocals later. Several high-profile guests appear, including Jimmy Page and Tom Waits. Producer Steve Lillywhite (U2, XTC, Talking Heads) manned the boards.

Dirty Work isn't just one of those "bad in retrospect" albums either. It was a clunker from the beginning, failing to go to number one in both the U.S. and the U.K., the first Stones studio album in 17 years not to hit the top spot. The band didn't tour behind the album, and one could assume it's because they knew they'd laid a rotten egg, and that it'd be better to lay low for awhile.

After listening to the album, I don't quite understand the reaction. It's definitely got some middling tracks, and an unfortunate reggae experiment, but to my ear it's not drastically less listenable than, say, Voodoo Lounge or Her Majesty's Satanic Request (if we're going to get insular here).

To me, this is all about the cover art. Go back and take a look at it. I'll wait. Pretty bad, isn't it? Given the brain's natural tendency to make connections and draw conclusions, you might assume Dirty Work was the Stones sellout record, full of polished, keyboard heavy pop-rock. No one would blame you for thinking that. The thing is, the bright colors of the sleeve (and the band's outfits) might have represented 1986, but it certainly didn't represent the music on the album. In fact, it's nearly the opposite. Despite Erlewine's claim, the production of Dirty Work is not dated. And despite the ennui on the boy's faces in that cover photo, most of the songs are angry and aggressive.

So as unlikely as it sounds, I really do believe the cover photo affected fan and critical reaction to the record. Additionally, the back cover lists the songs in the complete wrong order, and that couldn't have helped anything. In short, I think people judged this book by its cover. Thus, you are probably wondering, is this simply another case of "the band is so good even their worst album isn't so bad"? Well, no. If you're a reluctant admirer like me, it's a case of "the band is not as good as you think and this is just simply an average effort by them." But if you're a huge Stones fan, it's kind of like watching home movies from the time period when your parents almost got a divorce.

Opener One Hit (To The Body), which most fans find to be the one light in the dark, is a solid rock song, somewhat catchy, and perfect to start things off. The lyrics track a love affair turned to an obsession, but could just as easily be about drugs as they could be about a woman: "Oh your love is a sweet addiction / I can't clean you out of my veins."

The band's cover of a 1963 R & B song by Bob & Earl, Harlem Shuffle, was the first single off the album. While it isn't a bad tune, it's easy to see why it didn't catch on. It's just not attention-getting. However, I do give props to the groove, which seems more-or-less lifted from Talking Heads song Life During Wartime. Back To Zero also seems Heads-influenced. It's a rhythmic rumination on the apocalypse, and my favorite song on the album.

Winning Ugly is not bad, though in both lyrics and style it seems like a song that would play over the closing credits of a sports movie. Fight is like a featherweight boxer, short and feisty.

But some songs fall flat, for various reasons. There's that reggae experiment I mentioned, Too Rude. Keith takes lead vocals and does a fine job, but doesn't it seem like he's about 7 years behind the dub trend that overtook bands like XTC and The Clash in the late '70s? Keith's other showcase is a ballad called Sleep Tonight, a piano-driven country tune that somehow makes the phrase "you better get some sleep tonight" seem menacing.

The remaining songs are overly long and repetitive and suffer from strained vocals by Jagger. This list includes the title track, the bluesy Had It With You, and especially Hold Back, wherein Jagger does his best Dee Snider. In fact, this is actually the case even on the good songs; it's as if Mick voice only had one setting: Scream. It's so bad that I began to wonder if, considering the tension in the band and his newfound solo success, Jagger was intentionally trying to put some nails in his own band's coffin.

That's never a good thought to have when you're listening to an album, and that's probably why most Rolling Stones fans would like to disown Dirty Work. It reminds them of tough times they'd rather forget. That's why, for lack of a considered alternative, I'll agree that it's the band's Rock Bottom. The writer James Baldwin once said, " Great art can only be created out of love." And while I don't think that's a universally-true statement, it certainly seems true in this case.

Author's Note: This is album review # 199.

4 comments:

Bill said...

I kinda like "Dirty Work". "Satanic Majesty's" has some decent material, but it is a Mick album, not an album that has Keith providing much context, and not an album where the tension between them adds interest (like, for example, another of their weaker sides, "It's Only Rock'n'Roll"). You might hear "Winning Ugly" or the title track sometime again, but the rest is filler along the lines of "Fingerprint File". Still, it doesn't sound particularly dated, which "Satanic Majesties" did the day after it was released.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree - I really like this one pretty much all the way through. I think they pissed some people off because they felt like they needed to use Steve Lillywhite, and that in itself put an aura of, if not desperation, then at least the sense that they were chasing a trend rather than ignoring them. I'd say Goats Head Soup is still the stinker earlier in their career (we'll just leave Satanic Majesties out of this altogether), and the Don Was-produced Voodoo Lounge was, at least for me, a lot more difficult to swallow.

kingofgrief said...

I discovered your Rock Bottom series last night through Jeff Giles' similar Whoops! on Popdose. I've been enjoying your entries so far, and I'm sure I'll have .02 deposits to make before long. I just wanted to point out that Steve Lillywhite didn't work with Talking Heads until the Rock Bottom also-ran Naked in 1988, two years after Dirty Work was released. "Life During Wartime" (and its parent albu, Fear of Music) was an Eno/Heads co-production.

Clarification complete...back to the list I go.

Paul Allen said...

Thanks for the fact-check kingofgrief. I knew that Lillywhite didn't produce Fear of Music, so I'm not sure why I suddenly decided to write that he did. Oh well, I'm going to fix it. Thanks for reading! (and for turning me on to Whoops!)