Weather’s getting warm enough for folks to think about getting their ya-yas out, and who better than the Stones to shoot some electricity up your spine? Let It Bleed was one of a four-album blockbuster streak in that profitable stretch between 1968 and 1972 (Exile on Main Street, Beggars Banquet and Sticky Fingers were the others). By this time, the band had left behind any remaining clangy guitar, dance-hall-microphone aura and perfected the gritty, aggressive Stones sound so many people remember.
And with their unkempt look and unabashed lifestyle, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and the rest of the band were well on their way to a reputation for leering evil. Accusations of Satanism went hand-in-hand with the foregone conclusion that everything the Stones did, musically and otherwise, was anti-Beatles. (It’s not clear that the Stones intended any such thing; word is the two bands were friendly.) In retrospect, most of the Stones’ rep for “evil” (beyond some pretty hard partying) seems to have arisen from their failure to deny the wildest allegations.
Strip away all that shizz, as my son would say, and there’s some great music waiting. Jagger and Richards were never shy about their fascination with American delta blues; the Robert Johnson standard “Love in Vain” is proof. There’s no effort to over-electrify the Mississippi sound, and the simple treatment adds that much more power. It’s hard to avoid being drawn into some deep thoughts upon hearing the forlorn lyric, “When the train left the station/There were two lights on behind/The blue light was my baby/And the red light was my mind.”
The straight-ahead rockers on the album show the Stones as unafraid to dive into some tough subjects. Murder makes its appearance in “Midnight Rambler,” and “Gimme Shelter” lays an echo-y desperation over antiwar lyrics. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” has been analyzed back and forth so much that to say more about it would be like interpreting the Mona Lisa. The song has meant so many things to so many different people (bland acceptance of ambition’s shortcomings? Druggie lament?) that it no longer matters who’s right.
The best song on the album is probably one of the least remembered: “Monkey Man” careens along on a sprightly riff that simply demands putting the top down, getting some lead in your foot, and cranking the stereo.
So much has been made of the fact that the Stones have been at this for more than 50 years — and that Keef is still alive, in spite of everything — that it’s easy to forget just how good they were in this, the first of their primes. Checking out Let It Bleed again is not so much remembering as rediscovering.♦
© 2013 Adam Barr except album art and linked music