Exile on Main Street was conceived and recorded when distractions and self-destruction ran rampant for the Rolling Stones. While they trudged ahead on endless recording sessions and added tracks held over from previous sessions, what it all might add up to remained a mystery.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that Exile held together so well that every track on the sprawling double album added something special to the mix. When it was released, no one in the band knew it was as good as it was—including Keith, the Stone who has since been most vocal in praising it. Exile has been called Keith’s album, and one of many ironies about the record is that while his mind seemed to be elsewhere, the Muses were visiting him on a regular basis.
That said, on listening to the reissued Exile I was struck much more than before by Mick Jagger’s contribution. In spite of the sluggish recording process his lyrics were often composed on the spot, but they couldn’t have matched the music better. Equally impressive is the fact that a white guy from England who once majored in economics could sing so many styles of American roots music with such authority. Country rock was all the rage then, but no one could sing it more distinctively than Jagger does on “Sweet Virginia” and “Torn and Frayed”; where other white vocalists tripped over the blues, he shined on “Stop Breaking Down” and “Hip Shake.”
It didn’t hurt that he was surrounded by musicians who shared a remarkable reverence—and feel—for blues, country, gospel, soul, and fifties rock and roll. Never mind that they achieved a live-in-the-studio sound on songs that sometimes took forever to record, and never mind that Bill Wyman was fed up with the circus surrounding the Stones and Mick Taylor was, at the time, equally unimpressed. What matters is the music, not the process.
We may have reached the point, however, where the process receives more attention than the music. Among all the products celebrating Exile’s 30th anniversary is a deluxe edition that includes a documentary DVD and a collector’s book that puts the Stones’ nonstop party under a microscope. These extras are entertaining, but hardly essential.
Nor is the second CD of the 2-CD set, on which Mick Jagger mostly sings new lyrics over instrumental passages that are primarily from the Exile sessions (the others just sound like they are). Although Jagger still has a great voice, he doesn’t use it as well, sounding at times histrionic and strained. More than anything, these songs, plus the inferior alternate takes of “Loving Cup” and “Soul Survivor,” help clarify how good Exile was in its original form.
If the extra stuff isn’t essential, though, the album is. On the newly remastered CD the music sounds cleaner and sharper, and “Sweet Virginia” is absent the tape hiss that marred the original LP version. If you don’t already have a copy of the vinyl, though, I’d suggest the 180-gram reissue—partly out of nostalgia and partly because these unpolished performances seem simpatico with a sound that, even for analog, is somewhat murky. Murky? Yes—but also full of a life that digital engineers work endlessly to approximate.