The eighth track on the Rolling Stones’ 24th studio album is titled Live By the Sword, featuring different interpretations of the phrase about dying by the sword. However, it is not one of the strongest lyrics on Hackney Diamonds. It seems that Mick Jagger came up with the main idea for the song, but ran out of ideas for variations on the aforementioned phrase by the end of the first verse. Despite this, he boldly continued on with the song. He states, “If you’re involved in crime, you’re also involved in filth,” and “If you live a promiscuous lifestyle, you better be tough.” Well, if you say so, buddy.
Alternatively, one could argue that the lyrics hold little importance. Live By the Sword is a ferocious track that reunites the Rolling Stones lineup from the mid-70s to the early 90s – with Charlie Watts recording the drums before his death in 2021 and Bill Wyman on bass – and adds Elton John on keys, taking over the role previously held by the late Ian Stewart. This track, found on Hackney Diamonds, brings to mind the time in the late 70s when the Rolling Stones were briefly influenced by punk, whether they admitted it or not. It fits in with songs like Respectable from Some Girls, Where the Boys Go from Emotional Rescue, and Neighbours, originally recorded during the Emotional Rescue sessions but released on Tattoo You in 1981. Jagger’s vocals are filled with passionate conviction, even when the meaning is unclear, such as his references to living like a prostitute. His performance is lively and enthusiastic, a far cry from his occasional lackluster efforts on Stones albums in the 80s and 90s where he seemed to be simply going through the motions and relying on familiar vocal mannerisms.
Fairly, the lyrics occasionally present a striking line. At one point, Jagger sings “If you live by the clock, you’re in for a shock,” which is one of several references to the passage of time in the songs. Keith Richards also asks “Is my future all in the past?” on his solo track Tell Me Straight, providing a concise summary of the Rolling Stones’ more recent recording efforts. It has been 18 years since their last album of original material, an impressive gap even for a band that realized in the mid-90s that touring and album-making were no longer closely connected: making millions through touring no longer required releasing albums. One might have thought that 2005’s A Bigger Bang would be the Rolling Stones’ final album of original songs, with 2016’s Blue & Lonesome serving as a fitting conclusion: the band ending their recording career the same way they started it, with a collection of blues covers.
It’s possible that Andrew Watt is responsible for the Rolling Stones’ recent sound. Previously, Watt worked with artists such as Camila Cabello, Justin Bieber, and Dua Lipa before landing a new job producing for rock legends like Ozzy Osbourne, Elton John, Iggy Pop, and Paul McCartney. McCartney reportedly recommended Watt to the Stones after their sessions with Don Was didn’t go well. Watt has been known to modernize his older clients’ sound, using AutoTune on Ozzy Osbourne’s Patient Number 9 and a Britney Spears collaboration with Elton John titled Hold Me Closer. However, he seems to have realized that audiences in the 21st century want the Rolling Stones to sound like the Rolling Stones.
The catchy choruses of Angry and Depending on You, both co-written by Watt, indicate the involvement of someone who is well-versed in creating modern hits. The production has a contemporary sheen, preventing it from sounding like a mere imitation of the Rolling Stones’ past. Even with Lady Gaga’s guest appearance, where she attempts to capture the essence of Merry Clayton from the iconic Gimme Shelter, the album maintains a fresh sound. Unlike the Stones’ previous attempt to incorporate trip hop influences in Bridges to Babylon with the help of the Dust Brothers and Danny Saber, there are no awkward attempts to stay current. Mick Jagger has wisely chosen not to enlist the services of British rapper Skepta once again. Other guest stars, such as Lady Gaga, remain in the background and seem content with their roles. Paul McCartney adds a unique distorted bassline to Bite My Head Off, while Elton John and Stevie Wonder stick to their piano playing.
Despite its cringeworthy title, which may give the impression of a seedy strip club in Clapton, and its unimpressive cover art, which resembles a mediocre hair metal compilation, Hackney Diamonds boasts an abundance of excellent songs: the charmingly disheveled country vibes of Dreamy Skies; the alluringly laid-back Driving Me Too Hard; and the standout track Get Close, with its fantastic, quintessentially Keith Richards riff. While the recording sessions may have had their challenges – as revealed in a recent interview where new drummer Steve Jordan expressed his dissatisfaction with the poppy nature of the songs and the unnecessary guest appearances, and suggested that he should have co-produced with Jagger and Richards – the final product radiates a strong sense of purpose. It’s hard to ignore the fact that, with the passing of Watts looming over their minds, everyone involved wanted the Jagger-Richards songwriting duo to end on a high note with something noticeably more powerful than A Bigger Bang.
They have successfully achieved their goal, creating a rare modern Rolling Stones album that does not need to be justified. The closing track adds a sense of finality with an unrefined, acoustic version of Muddy Waters’ Rolling Stone Blues, featuring Jagger’s haunting harmonica and Richards playing a 1930s Gibson guitar like the iconic bluesman Robert Johnson. It is amazing. Richards asks “How do we end?” on Tell Me Straight, and Hackney Diamonds may just be the emphatic response.