Recently I issued a half-formed opinion on double-albums. A prejudice, really, arising as much from ADHD as any learned assessment of music criticism. At best, an observation:
I don’t usually like double-albums. I find them generally undisciplined, self-absorbed affairs. Sometimes, as with The White Album, or Exile on Main Street, that lack of rigid focus is a pleasant suprise. But here, it just reflects the band’s inability to control themselves.
That album was Physical Graffiti, which people may like, but no one considers disciplined. But what about the others? Was the White Album really a departure of form for the Beatles, or just the next logical progression in a band-dissolution that had been going on, according to some, since Rubber Soul?
I ask because Exile on Main Street has long been considered the Stones’ greatest achievement, their artistic and critical pinnacle before what’s become a forty-year victory lap. Recent nostalgia has but added to its lustre, with alt.country and garage-punk luminaries willingly giving talking-face time to the obligatory documentary. You can hardly blame them: the most famous band in the world, forced into exile by the confiscatory tax code, living it up in the South of France, recording a double-album in their mobile studio whenever they good get the gang together and sober? Who doesn’t want to comment on that?
The tendency of pop culture is to dramatize the unremarkable, and the further back in time an event lies, the need to “print the legend” starts to assert itself. So I could very easily riff for a few paragraphs off say, Lester Bangs’ assessment: “Exile is about casualties, and partying in the face of them.” and go to bed.
But for all of that, is there really anything going on here that’s not present on Beggar’s Banquet? Gutbucket hard rock? Check. Smashed, bluesy country? Check. Stoned gospel? Checkcheckcheckitycheck.
If Exile stands up better than Beggar’s, it’s because there’s more music to go around, and a smaller gap between the earworms and the filler. The first six tracks on this album outpunch any six contiguous tracks on any Stones album, ever. They left nothing on the field this time, assigned nothing to the cutting room floor. Maybe this is everyone’s favorite Stones album because it’s the last time they sound like they gave a damn.
For me, it’s been a long time figuring all this out. I’ve owned this forever, as long as any of my Stones discs, and the first few times I heard it, I did not get what was happeneing. It sounded all over the place and off-center, without any of the obvious hits to carry me through. The only tune I connected with was “Sweet Virginia,” but boy, did I connect with that. It was a perfect, an invitation to dirty yourself and clean yourself at the same time, made full of worldly knowledge that I was too young to have thend didn’t know until that point that I wanted. Now I dig the whole messy thing, and don’t feel quite comfortable unless I can spare the time to listen to the whole thing. Unlike Let it Bleed, which felt comfortable as an old jacket the first time I heard it, Exile has new revelations every listen.
Further Rolling Stones CD Reviews: