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The Rolling Stones Hackney Diamonds Review: Classic Rock That Feels Out of Time

Like every other Rolling Stones album dubbed the best since 1978’s Some Girls, Hackney Diamonds features enough cringey lyrics, dodgy guitar riffs, and self-plagiarism (such as Keith Richards playing “Tumbling Dice” at the beginning of “Driving Me Too Hard”) to keep it out of the pantheon of their greatest releases. What parts of the album do capture is a genuinely contemporary flair that the Stones haven’t successfully embodied since they triangulated the emerging threads of punk and disco back in the late 1970s.

The album’s crisp, booming drums, hooky choruses, and livewire vocals have a radio-ready sheen without feeling forced, or compromising the Stones’s essential traits. The opening track, “Angry,” hardens the edges around a shiny pop-forward hook with a hit of stadium swagger and a roiling outro that piles on knotty guitar solos from Richards and Ronnie Wood. The fact that the Stones don’t sound completely out of time—in fact, they sound more energetic than they have in decades—is no mean feat considering that they haven’t released an album of original material in nearly two decades.

Credit goes, in part, to Andrew Watt, whose combination of hitmaking bona fides and classic-rock fandom may have made him the only producer on Earth who could have threaded the needle precisely enough to turn “Mess It Up,” whose chorus veers into straight-up dance-pop, into a credible Rolling Stones song. The secret: Richards’s trademark open-tuning chords on the verses and the late Charlie Watts’s drum track, recorded in 2019, which manages to be both effortlessly danceable and understated. (Drumming duties on the album are otherwise mostly performed by Steve Jordan, Richards’s old compadre in the X-Pensive Winos).

Watt shepherds the Stones into unearthing long-dormant corners of their unparalleled stylistic range. You’d have to go back to 1981’s Tattoo You to hear a funky, percussive track, complete with sax solo, like “Get Close,” and as far back as 1972’s Exile On Main St. for a full-blown gospel rave-up like the rapturous “Sweet Sounds of Heaven.” Both songs clearly evoke past Stones eras, but through some combination of age-defyingly loose and limber performances, they aren’t so overtly retro that they can’t sit comfortably next to more pop-friendly fare like “Depending on You.” That track replaces the maudlin sentimentality usually endemic to Jagger’s latter-day breakup ballads with heart-tugging melodic hooks and slide guitar.

As high-energy and catchy as most of Hackney Diamonds is, though, the album also showcases a few tracks that suggest that the Stones might be better off embracing their age rather than asserting their eternal youthfulness (“I’m too old for dying and too young to lose,” Jagger declares on “Depending on You”). The gentle country shuffle “Dreamy Skies” sheds the studio varnish for a more ramshackle, front-porch feel, and if “Mess It Up” and “Angry” are Jagger and Watt’s vision of the Stones in 2023—keeping up with the times and still full of piss and vinegar—then “Tell Me Straight,” a gossamer after-hours ballad, is Richards’s. “Did we have something or nothing at all…Is my future all in my past?” he ponders in his lovably leathery croak, sounding weathered by the years.

The album closes with a cover of “Rolling Stone Blues,” the 1950 Muddy Waters classic that gave the band its name. Tracked live with just Richards on guitar and Jagger on vocal and harmonica, it’s a ghostly, spine-tingling performance that sees the Glimmer Twins at last morphing into the kind of pseudo-mythical bluesmen they started their careers seeking to emulate over 60 years ago. If most of Hackney Diamonds proves that the Stones can still sound relevant, these final songs prove that they can do better than that: They can still be timeless.

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