Before we get right into another installment of Milam’s “Classics Under Fire,” (in which a relatively unknown artist takes a univerally beloved work of art to task) I’ve got a few shameless plugs to get out of the way:
2) The New Merchandise and online store have been unveiled HERE. So hop on over and buy some stuff, yo.
Over Christmas, I got a handful of albums I’ve always enjoyed but have never owned. This applies to a lot of records, but I picked these specifically for the reason that I felt like I should own them. They are classics. All music fans must own them. About thirty long drives and several dozen listens later, I realized something: there is no record that is above criticism. Not Born to Run. And not (brace yourselves) the Stones’ Exile on Main Street.
Let me start by saying that I own Exile for a reason. For its gorgeous revisitation of old rhythm and blues it is a good album, and an interesting album. For its truly great production and aesthethic consistency (more on this later), it is a wonderfully consistent listen. It is, perhaps, the best Stones record, which obviously puts it on the short list of Great Albums By Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime. But what, other than its twenty-five year status as a classic, makes it a classic?
The impact and cultural breadth of Exile is, for the most part, unavoidable; hang around music-y types long enough and you will hear about its greatness, hear the album in someone’s car, hear some guys hunched over guitars struggle to cover its tunes. You won’t hear anyone’s professor discuss the expert composition of “Loving Cup,” (although Richards’ guitar playing throughout the album is undoubtedly great), but you will likely hear “Tumbling Dice” or “Sweet Virginia” or “Shine a Light” in someone’s dorm room before you’ve reached your early twenties.
In other words, there seems to be a gap between the Stones’ impact and their merit. You can’t avoid them–which can indicate greatness–but you also might not be able to identify what makes them so great, or Exile on Main Street so “classic.”
This is due in large part to a relative weakness in song craft. As composers, Richards/Jagger were infrequently insightful and rarely deliberate. You don’t need to look far past Exile (allegedly their best album) and its one-dimensional, blues rock swagger to see that its song composition isn’t even thoughtful or sophisticated enough to warrant comparison with, say, any of the Beatles work post-1965. Revolver and Abbey Road alone use rock music as a medium to reconstruct pop culture, using each individual song as a means to that end (much less Sgt. Pepper). It is not hyperbolic or even fawning to compare Lennon and McCartney to the most significant composers of the 20th century; they did many of the same things, just in a different medium. But that’s not really what Richards and Jagger are going for. I think that, at their best, their loftiest achivement was revisiting (not revising) old forms and doing them justice. Exile is about your guts–not your heart, and not your head.
This doesn’t make it a bad album. Given its aesthetic successes and cultural impact, it’s quite clearly a great album. But it does make it less dynamic than the best (and “classic”) work of the Stones’ peers in the Rock Pantheon. Not as expansive or as multi-dimensional as The Beatles. Not as musically revolutionary as Zeppelin. Certainly not as lyrically strong (or, subsequently, interesting) as Dylan. Again, your guts–not your heart, not your head.
Which brings me to another, perhaps bigger, point. The reason the Stones–especially Exile–are so ubiquitous among college circles and late night drivers and throwback hipsters is because they represent, maybe more than any other rock band, lifestyle music. If you make the argument that the Stones trump the Beatles for “Best Rock Band Ever” status, you’re making a point about your own lifestyle and worldview (“I’ll pretty much always take the counterpoint.”). If you make this case for Zeppelin, it’s a different statement (“I care less about points and counterpoints than you, mostly because I’m high.”). If you make this case for the Ramones, it’s a different statement (“I’m not even arguing your point and counterpoint. They have no meaning.”) You get the picture.
But the point is, Exile is the Stones doing what they do best: giving like-minded folks a hiccup-free, consistently rocking, upbeat, swaggering, rollicking, soundtrack to their day. Exile is remarkable because of its single-mindedness: the album is practically without aesthetic exception. You can pop it in your car stereo and let it play through without deviation or unpredictability. These are eighteen uncomplicated, amazingly listenable rock songs. Period. This is, in a way, mood music. It is, you know, bitchin, man. But still musically credible. So if anyone (like a certain type of retro hipster, or a certain brand of ignorant-yet-snobby amateur musician, or just a guy sitting in the backseat wanting to hum along) wants something credibly (and incredibly) bitchin, Exile is the first pick.
I’ve got a feeling that Exile‘s legacy as a “classic” stems from its fans’ unconscious awareness of that aesthetic consistency. They have a mood, and it suits that mood perfectly. This doesn’t make it bad. Quite the contrary. Exile on Main Street, like so much of the Stones’ best work, feels just like a great dessert. I guess I just prefer my “classics” to have all seven courses of the meal.
On the road again,