Sigh. I have such a hard time getting with the program.
Everybody thinks Dark Side of the Moon is Pink Floyd’s masterwork. I think it’s a bit boring, and not half as interesting as Wish You Were Here or Animals. Everybody thinks Tommy was the greatest thing The Who ever did. “Yawn,” say I, “I’ll take Who’s Next any time.” Everybody thinks Arthur is The Kinks’ masterpiece; I recently caught all kinds of hell from Kinks fans for disputing that conclusion. Everybody thinks Abbey Road was a fitting conclusion to a great run by the greatest band of all time. I think it’s a stinker that shows only that The Beatles hung on about two years too long.
So here I am facing the album that Everybody says is the best thing The Stones ever did and wondering why I’m pretty much alone in thinking that Exile on Main Street is a bloated, busy, overcrowded mass of uninspired music.
Well, at least I can take solace in the fact that Mick Jagger said it wasn’t one of his favorite albums, either. I’ve always thought Mick Jagger was a man of exquisite taste.
My problems with Exile on Main Street apply to just about every track and include:
Dreadful Arrangements: There’s simply too much stuff and too many musicians crammed into nearly every single song. It sounds like The Stones decided to throw everything and everyone who happened to stop by into the mix instead of actually thinking about the sounds and moods they wanted to create. If you look at the arc between Beggars Banquet and Exile on Main Street, we move gradually from elegant simplicity to more and more complexity in the form of horns, keyboards, choirs and backup singers. They managed the added complexity exceptionally well on Sticky Fingers, but here they threw all discipline to the wind. The greatest crime on Exile is the horribly overdone version of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down,” a shocking turnabout after their exquisitely sensitive version of “Love in Vain” on Let It Bleed. And why did they have to include that saxophone on “Sweet Virginia” or those horns that bury everything else on “Rocks Off?” There’s scarcely a song on Exile that doesn’t cause me to wince at some point and shout, “Why the fuck did you have to add that to the mix?” The biggest problem is that all this stuff masks the rhythm and the groove, and while everyone paid attention to Mick and Keith, it was Bill and Charlie that made The Stones go.
Dreadful Mixing: In addition to the sheer quantity of sound, the mixing is simply awful. Mick’s vocals are so muddy and unintelligible at times that I wonder if they bothered to see if his mike was plugged in. Anything’s possible, since they were shipping heroin into Villefranche-sur-Mer like there was no tomorrow and the producer was a major consumer! When you do hear bass and drums, it’s either during the few moments when no one else is playing or because someone accidentally bumped the sliders on the mixer. I’ve listened to the original mix on vinyl from my father’s collection, the 1994 mix from my teenage CD collection and bought the 2010 mix especially for this review. They all suck.
Too Many People Who Are Not The Rolling Stones: There are at least sixteen other musicians, both instrumentalists and singers, on Exile on Main Street as opposed to five Stones. During the recording period, The Stones observed what we refer to today as “flexible schedules,” meaning they pretty much showed up when they felt like it or when their other commitments eased up enough to allow them to grace the recording studio with their presence. The effect of all this chaos is a loss of The Stones’ core sound and attitude. Exile sounds like a large group of people doing Stones covers or a hootenanny of hangers-on and professional druggies.
Witless Lyrics: I mean that literally. The Stones had consistently demonstrated a penetrating sense of humor over the years; the lyrics on Exile are uniformly devoid of wit. In fact, they’re pretty much devoid of anything. There aren’t even any memorable lines that leap out at you. The lyrics are pretty much rock cliché with occasional roads that lead nowhere and a few naughty words thrown in to titillate the mindless. “Moronic Party Album” pretty much sums up Exile on Main St.
When it comes down to it, out of eighteen tracks, I like a grand total of one: “Sweet Black Angel.” Percentage-wise, that would make it my least favorite Stones album, but there are enough faint hints of something decent beneath the muck to put it ahead of the completely unsalvageable Their Satanic Majesties Request. I think Exile is probably a decent party album, if played at that volume where you’re aware of the patterns but aren’t paying attention to the details. By way of decade-based comparison, I like Some Girls a bit better, even though I despise “Miss You” and their pathetic cover of “Just My Imagination.” Since I don’t care at all for Goat’s Head Soup or Black and Blue, I guess Exile wins some kind of consolation prize.
We’ll let the cultured, sophisticated, incisive and extraordinarily perceptive Mr. Jagger have the last word, from the book According to the Rolling Stones:
Exile is not one of my favourite albums, although I think the record does have a particular feeling. I’m not too sure how great the songs are, but put together it’s a nice piece. However, when I listen to Exile it has some of the worst mixes I’ve ever heard. I’d love to remix the record, not just because of the vocals, but because generally I think it sounds lousy. At the time Jimmy Miller was not functioning properly. I had to finish the whole record myself, because otherwise there were just these drunks and junkies. Of course I’m ultimately responsible for it, but it’s really not good and there’s no concerted effort or intention.