The Rolling Stones' new album hits at number two on the Billboard 200 this week. The debut--with a mere 150,000 copies sold on a wave of massive hype--is considered to be an embarrassment within the industry. War-horses like Pink Floyd sell nearly half a million copies their first days out, debut at number one, and stay there. The Stones, by contrast, could muster barely half the sales of The Lion King sound track, and Voodoo Lounge will drop quickly as word hits the street what an ever-lovin' dog the album is.
Qualitywise, the album is painfully similar to its immediate predecessors, Dirty Work (1986) and Steel Wheels (1989), and to Mick Jagger's various solo albums, notably Wandering Spirit (1993). It's also similar to these albums in the way the mainstream press has reviewed it. So many years on, a rigid pattern is apparent in Rolling Stones record reviews: any new album is by definition a masterwork displaying that the band can rock in top form once again, and previous records (which were hailed as returns to top form on their release) are, 1984-style, dismissed as tired. To drive the point home, the reviewer compares the new album to past glories, most often Some Girls. The extraordinarily rare voice of dissent tends to be halfhearted: when Time's Jay Cocks damned Steel Wheels with faint praise, for example, but did it in the midst of a glowing cover story on the band entitled "Rock Rolls On."
This all creates a critical theory problem I'm pleased to call the Hitsville Conundrum: as this state of affairs continues, reviewers will be forced to make finer and finer distinctions to keep describing records as better than the last one but not as good as Some Girls. Mathematically, this recurring loop can be demonstrated thusly, where Some Girls is given a value of 1, its successor, Emotional Rescue, is arbitrarily assigned half that value, and each succeeding album is assigned half the value of its predecessor plus the total of all the fractions before it:
1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16 + 1/32 .
While this progression is theoretically infinite, it may eventually strain the bounds of human journalism. It's possible reviewers will eventually agree that some future Stones album is better than Some Girls, and then compare it to the previous watershed, probably Exile on Main St. (As the quotations below demonstrate, this process may have already begun.) Exile will hold for a while, and then even earlier benchmarks (Beggar's Banquet, Aftermath) will be cited and then breeched. Finally, inevitably, England's Newest Hit Makers, the Stones' U.S. debut, will rise and ultimately fall in the face of their extraordinary continuing artistic growth. All of which can only mean one thing: the band's best work is ahead of them.
"In another room, mixes...of the Stones' new material were being played. The group's twin-guitar firepower hasn't sounded half as grungy or as lethal since Exile on Main Street." --Robert Palmer, Rolling Stone, c. December 1985
"It do kick ass....Jagger sounds genuinely frustrated, torn, awkward, and yes, vulnerable....I say good for him, and good for the band." --Vic Garbarini, Musician, July 1986
"Dirty Work is the best statement the Stones have made since the trash-talking Some Girls of 1978." --James Woolcott, Vanity Fair, August 1986
"Radio has no "Mixed Emotions' about the band's best album since 1981's Tattoo You." --Billboard.
"Like Some Girls it's a benchmark that looks as much toward the Stones' future as their past, lacking the danger of Exile and Sticky Fingers but more solid and hungry than anything they've done this decade." --Karen Schoemer, Spin, October 1989
"Their best songs of the 80s." --Andrew Abrahams, People, c. November, 1989.
"It's the old Sticky Fingers/Let It Bleed recipe, dusted off and reapplied with a unity of purpose missing from most Stones platters since God knows when." --unsigned, Rolling Stone, December 14, 1989
"The Rolling Stones have pulled it together for another end-of-the-decade hat trick [sic], a la Let It Bleed and Tattoo You. Steel Wheels is easily the most focused, committed and vital Stones release in a decade." --Vic Garbarini, Playboy, December, 1989
The Stones are right in the element that has spawned their best music....[They] have once again generated an album that will have the world dancing to deeply troubled, unresolved emotions." --Anthony DeCurtis, Rolling Stone, September 21, 1989 (four-and-a-half star review)
"Certainly the best rolling Stones album in at least a decade." --David Fricke, Rolling Stone, September 7, 1989
"The most purposeful and assured of his three solo discs...Wandering Spirit illuminates the varied aspects of a complex personality. The best of all, it rocks like a bitch." --Parke Puterbaugh, Rolling Stone, February, 1993 (four-star review)
"Jagger has done himself proud....Wandering Spirit has all the shiftless heft of a Rolling Stones album....Sticky Fingers with a manicure....Time, all of a sudden, is on his side again." --Jay Cocks, Time, February 15, 1993
"Rockers like 'Sweet Thing' have more gusto than the Stones have cooked up in years." --Karen Schoemer, New York Times, February 21, 1993
"Steel Wheels was the most tired album they'd ever made....Voodoo Lounge is the Stones' crispest work since that late-in-the-game home run, Tattoo You, some 13 years ago." --David Browne, Entertainment Weekly, July 22, 1994
"Their lyrics come alive with troubled noir imagery, and their hooks are, by miles, the best from the band since Some Girls, or maybe even Exile on Main St." --Greg Sandow, Entertainment Weekly, July 22, 1994
"It is invigorating indeed to be slapped round the ears by the new Stones CD. This is the most exciting and invigorating work the venerable Stones have produced in a decade....Nice one, lads." --Guy Cooper, Newsweek, July 18, 1994
"Steel Wheels...seemed more manufactured than genuinely inspired. [Voodoo Lounge is] a fine new album...a surefire smash." --Guy Garcia, Newsweek, July 18, 1994
"Voodoo Lounge [is] the most listenable Stones album in 16 years...the first Stones album in eons you'll want to play more than 10 times." --Dave DiMartino, Musician, August 1994
"Sure you've heard it before. 'The Stones are back, they're rockin'." And you've been burned--by Black and Blue, Emotional Rescue, and the overmanicured pop and groove filler that marred even strong outings like Dirty Work and Steel Wheels. But Voodoo Lounge was an album that the Stones were pressed to make, one that would argue long and hard for their defiant longevity." --David Fricke, Rolling Stone, July 14-28, 1994
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mark Seliger.