Let It Bleed, by the Rolling Stones
“Let It Bleed” is the sound of joyous and inexorable decay, a celebration of spiritual entropy at it’s slowest and nastiest vibration.
It packs more stomp and beautiful depravity in forty-two minutes than any other “classic” Rock and Roll album, before or since.
Some have made the case the Stones were a singles band. I don't disagree. They may be the finest ever. And when they tried to piece together an "album", a song cycle with thematic underpinnings, they answered Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band with the entertaining but ultimately empty Their Satanic Majesties Request, suffering their first real flop.
After that, they focused on crafting songs, and releasing them in album form, but ignoring any real kind of conceptual
underpinning, and even giving little thought to pacing or sequence. That is why most Stones albums, as has been mentioned, don't quite carry the same weight as their brilliant individual songs, and
why their compilations are often preferred. Exile on Main Street, for instance, is a collection of great songs, but, to these ears, it tends to sag in parts, where a different sequencing may
have delivered a more complete experience.
Let It Bleed, though, hangs together perfectly. It may be dark serendipity, but the album feels whole, and forms a coherent and dazzling meditation on the human experience.
It starts, fittingly enough, with "Gimme Shelter", an apocalyptic distillation of animus and groove. The threat is jaggedly heralded, uncoiling through Keith Richard', who restyles Chuck Berry into a snarling declaration.of both threat and promise, fear and security.
The bass begins to roll underneath, and drummer Charlie Watts issues a two-note thundercrack that signals something truly memorable.
Watt’s playing actually makes this song. Nothing fancy, but urgently grooved and perfectly accenting the proceedings with a four-note accent pattern that give the song both it's gravity and it's black lilt.
By the time Mick Jagger begins to sing, you're hooked, but what little solace his voice may have offered is suddenly derailed by Merry Clayton's stunning high harmony on the chorus. She acts, throughout the song, as a chilling Greek chorus.
Through it all, there is that blues harp, an unearthly, distorted buzz that feels like nothing less than Satan humming along.
It is easily the scariest song in the rock canon. "Heroin" comes close, perhaps "T.B. Sheets", but "Gimme Shelter" heralds a more universal fear, of war, both literal and metaphorical. And it's not an abstract and clinical “watch it on CNN” reality show, but an Armageddon-in-your-back yard type of affair.
Never, though, has the apocalypse swaggered and swung so hard. It is, all in all, an awesome and danceable rumination on fear.
"Love in Vain" follows, a pain-drenched Robert Johnson cover that throws unrequited love in the all-too-human mix. The Stones, it should be noted, are an amazing cover band, as well, able to bend and shape any song to their whims, and often reveal more than the original.
There is a little break for the fiddle-driven version of 'Honky Tonk Women". "Country Honk" is a grinning, fish-out-of-water story, one that adds texture, and a sympathetic humanity to the horror show.
Then "Live With Me" comes barreling in. It’s a nasty invitation, and one awash in scenes of institutionalized suburban freaks, desensitized monsters, and dirty seduction. The bass-line forms the initial hook, then things get gloriously intertwined. It is a furiously insistent rocker that builds and sneaks up, and the lyrics were so suggestive that a choir, who performed on another of the album's songs, asked not to be credited on the album.
A bottleneck slide and a winsome acoustic guitar introduce the title track, and it is hard to believe that this genteel duet will give way to a stomping blues that actually offers a little hope. Oh, it still alludes to sex and drugs, but it also offers real kinship and even (gasp) love, and of a deeper and stronger stripe than some hash-and-hummer fueled coupling.
Which is nice to hear, because side two is where the real depravities begin: "Midnight Rambler", which quotes it's inspiration, convicted Boston Strangler Albert DeSalvo. The standard rock-blues pattern is perfect as the hypnotic backdrop, while we delve into the psyche of a rapist. It's downright creepy, and equally compelling. It is a bit long (in his biography, Keith Richards called it a "blues opera"), and has a couple of stuttered tempo changes, which suits the scattered mind of a sociopath quite vividly. And it is done with a nuanced sense of inner anger that your basic death metal band can only hint at.
So now we let Keef sing one. "You Got The Silver", a sweet acoustic-based country blues, beautifully crafted, if a tad pedestrian. Until you sink into his plaintively sung lyrics and see that this, the closest thing to filler on the album, is actually a stealthy little number about love as a wickedly possessive siren, and seduction as a metaphor for control. Nasty stuff, really...but the man was dating Anita Pallenburg at the time.
Which kicks in the galloping, neo-swing intro to "Monkey Man", one of the more underrated songs in the Stones canon. It morphs into a lightly funky, almost Latin feel, and takes the listener right into a nasty acid trip, or maybe just real life when stripped down to basics. At any rate, it is a song so mesmerizing and jittery that Scorsese uses it as a soundtrack for Henry Hill's last hectic day of real freedom, in Goodfellas.
Still, it is a bit of an oasis in this psychic nightmare, as the kinship alluded to earlier is revisited, and the listener is allowed to find a tiny bit of solace therein.
It is, no doubt, a truly debauched album, all hedonistic energy, drenched in lust, alcohol and drugs, deviant sex, betrayal, even murder, a carnal flood masquerading as a blissful spiritual narcotic to dull the existential pain we all face.
But far from being a mere wallowing, or worse, a morality play, the album achieves true grace by delivering on the promise of the title cut, with the redemption found in "You Can't Always Get What You Want", the last cut on the album. A singular and beautiful song that begins with the choir listed above (Remember? The ones who refused to let their name be used, lest they be forever linked with lechery?), and flows into an acoustic guitar passage framing a french horn intro (played by Al Kooper, rock's own Zelig). It does evolve into a more full-bodied rocker, even lapsing into double-time towards the end, but the optimism given from the lyrics, and Jagger's insistence of their immutability, allows the light to shine again. The harrowing ride, is over, and it's gonna be okay.
Or maybe you don't see it that way. Maybe you wish to forgo the whole thing as some kind of musical audiobook of The Revelation of Saint John the Divine, and just dance.
That's fine, too. It works. Whatever you need. This motherfucker rocks, and it does so with an organic flow that never lets up. I return to it time and time, again, and it keeps on revealing. It is the embodiment of what the very best Rock and Roll can deliver, the human experience of all the facts of life, even the rougher ones, and the inherent joy of being.
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