It’s a fact as undeniable as it is oft-repeated: in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the Rolling Stones were incapable of doing wrong. Or, at the very least, the wrongs they were committing were exactly the sort that the public wanted from its rock stars. The Stones did drugs, got caught, and came back with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” They rode with the Hells Angels to a concert at Altamont, someone got killed, and it only added to the legend. When the band decamped from England to make Exile on Main St in 1972, they cut a boozy path from the south of France to Los Angeles. What resulted was an 18-track album of such bad-boy, Dionysian swagger that it’s been rereleased on format after format in the years since. The latest iteration of this Exile industry, however, isn’t only a marketplace sop. Universal’s new “deluxe” edition adds 10 unreleased tracks from those sessions, a documentary, and a chance to puzzle over why no one hits these notes anymore—least of all the Stones themselves, who oddly elected to overdub new vocal and guitar lines onto some outtakes from nearly 40 years ago.
These bonus tracks from the Exile sessions aren’t half bad, even if it’s easy to tell why they got cut. The new entry “Plundered My Soul” can’t best “Tumbling Dice” for an articulation of down-and-out pride, and the Delta touches of “I Ain’t Signifying” aren’t superior to the slide guitar that drove “Ventilator Blues.” What the collection does reveal is a band locked into a performing groove, one capable of steering them toward worthy takes of half-sketched songs. There’s a casual confidence that puts the lie to some of Mick Jagger’s late-period stage manner, in which strutting became an end in itself. There’s less self-conscious showboating here, but a lot worth boasting about.
Another curious side effect of this latest rerelease is the chance it affords to reflect on how different this all sounds from any kind of rock and roll we have today. Outside of a minor hit from the White Stripes here and there, blues chord changes have been passé for more than a decade. And swagger isn’t part of the argot anymore. Rock radio is still devoted to brash displays of power, though it’s become divorced from sex appeal. Many on the indie side of the equation—a.k.a. the “critically adored” brand of rock—have made vulnerability a virtue. The National’s latest record, High Violet, is the band’s best so far, but when Matt Berninger sings of a “Terrible Love,” the terribleness isn’t something he’s in thrall to, but something that gives him the shakes. It’s easy to chart this change—how after Exile came the Stooges’ “Gimme Danger,” then late-’70s punk and mid-’80s Public Enemy, until, by the late ’90s, we settled into a musical culture whose mainstream lacked any credible sense of threat. (The underground, as ever, still snarls.) Since then, millennial rock fans have progressed to adulthood under the weight of severe student-loan debt, spotty access to health insurance, and an economy that’s fluctuated between periods of anemic growth and panicky free fall. It’s no wonder they don’t invite recreational danger the same way their boomer parents—and rock icons—could. The real world is perilous enough. What’s interesting about listening to new vocals by Jagger super-imposed on discarded tracks from decades past is realizing that even the Stones—whose most recent album was strong but not urgent—need a little help from history in order to reclaim that aura, too.