As Michael Jackson in the 90s, Dylan in the 80s, or post-Smiths/-Viva Hate Morrissey would attest, an unsung or widely defiled period of a great artist’s career can often hide some of their best work. Or at least, their most interesting. Free from the constraints of “relevance” (i.e. commercial pressure), they tend to produce more eccentric and therefore less accessible but even more singular music. The Rolling Stones are no exception. Long guaranteed to sell out whatever venues they choose, many have wondered why they’ve kept putting out new material the last couple of decades. Certainly they don’t expect any of their new songs to stay in the setlist longer than a tour or two? Why risk tarnishing such a monumental legacy?
It probably comes down to Mick Jagger’s expressed distaste for nostalgia. Which may be a little ironic, given the aforementioned setlists, but still, the lack of sentimentality or explicit self-mythologizing on their post-Some Girls records is pretty darn respectable. Watch the documentary that accompanied last year’s reissue of Exile on Main Street, and you can see how visibly uncomfortable Mick is with the whole project. I highly doubt we’ll be reading his memoir any time soon. So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he started exploring fresh lyrical ground in the 90s. Namely, religious ground. They’d tackled a number of gospel songs in the past (e.g. “You Gotta Move” off Sticky Fingers or “I Just Want To See His Face” from Exile), but as good as they were, they always seemed like textural additions or genre exercises.
1994’s underrated Voodoo Lounge – if they’d cut the running time in half, they truly would have had their best latter-day record – was where Jagger’s crisis of faith first reared its head. “Blinded By Rainbows” finds him cynically asking “Did you ever feel the pain that he felt upon the cross?… See the face of Christ? Enter paradise? I doubt it.” If nothing else, the Lord was clearly on the Jagger brain:
The interest bloomed on 1997’s somewhat lackluster Bridges to Babylon with the brilliant single “Saint of Me.” Without a doubt the highlight of their dirty-old-men phase and as far as I know the only Stones song that namedrops Paul, Augustine, Jesus, John The Baptist and Herod. Mick may find himself on the other side of the great divide, but it would appear that he’s getting a lot closer, or at least, getting down to the heart of the matter, i.e. can a sinner actually be redeemed? Remarkable:
The final piece of the puzzle came on 2001’s underrated Jagger solo disc, Goddess In The Doorway. This time the writing’s on the wall, with both the lead-off single “God Gave Me Everything” – come again? – and particularly the straight-up gospel duet with Bono, “Joy”, in which Mick sings, “I drove across the desert/ I was in my four wheel drive/ I was looking for the Buddha/And I saw the Jesus Christ… My soul is like a ruby/ And I threw it in the earth/ But now my hands are bleeding/ From scrabbling in the dirt/ And I looked up to the heavens/ And a light is on my face/ I never never never/ Thought I’d find a state of grace/ Oh joy, love you bring/ Oh joy, make my heart my sing”:
Too bad, then, that the record ended with the repentant but still disconcertingly Semi-Pelagian “Brand New Set of Rules.” If the whole thing didn’t take – and the jury’s very much still out – at least we know why.
So, Mick, with all due respect, we have to ask… can’t you hear me knocking?!