Dense, druggy and often difficult, Exile on Main St. has always been the Rolling Stones that might not have given fans exactly what they want, but over the course of nearly 40 years, have proved exactly what we need.
A newly (and sorely needed) remastering of the sprawling rock opus was released today, with additional tracks recorded during the famously decadent sessions but never released. Not only does it provide a crisper, cleaner (in the dirtiest and most disheveled way possible) version of the record, as well as the first new Stones songs that feel authentically classic since the early 1980s, but it serves to remind us all of that all-too-brief period when the Stones were all but untouchable.
Starting in 1968, the band released four albums (Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile) in five years that would cement and sustain its reputation through years of thick and thin.
What's incredible is that when initially released in 1972, Exile was met with apathy and, in some cases, hostility. Arriving hard on the heels of the more polished and cohesive Sticky Fingers, Exile was declared, by both critics and fans alike. The layered arrangements lacked some of the big hooks and soaring choruses of the band's earlier work. Mick Jagger's vocal tracks, one of the more distinctive aspects of the Stones sound, were buried in the mix, surfacing from time to time to frustrate fans accustomed to his upfront approach. Stylistically, the record vacillated wildly, shifting from blues to country to driving rock. It's no wonder Exile confounded so many.
It's also no wonder it has, as time has passed, come to be considered a rock classic and perhaps the Rolling Stones finest.
For me, the magic of Exile has always hinged on its honesty. It isn't a particularly earnest recording. There's never the sense that the band is living these songs, inhabiting the characters. But there's always an understanding that the songs, whatever the style, are being played with a real sense of authenticity. Earlier Stones experiments with country tones and textures had felt affected, a little like a British rock band playing with a musical form it had only recently discovered. On Exile, the country feels Nashville authentic.
There's a lot of rumors that have swirled around Exile and its labored production in England, Los Angeles and, most famously, a mansion in France. Some have said that the late, great Georgia-born songwriter Gram Parsons appeared on tracks and provided ghost guidance to Jagger and Keith Richards, the band's principal songwriters. That appears to be legend only. Others stated that the 66 minutes of music released were only part of the Exile picture. That, quite happily, turns out to be true. More than mere throwaways, the new songs attached to the re-released Exile are cohesive parts of the whole. They retain the vibe and style of the album and a few, most notably Pass the Wine, rank with classic Exile tracks such as Tumbling Dice, Rocks Off and Loving Cup.
The sad truth of the Rolling Stones is that Exile on Main St. really marked the end of an era for the band. Although there would be occasional glimmers of the band's former glory on albums such as Some Girls and Tattoo You, the truth is the band never sounded as sweet, or honest, after Exile. Thankfully, there was just a little bit more to go around.