A little while ago I wrote an article about what, by common consent, was the most fruitful and inventive period in the illustrious career of The Rolling Stones, namely 1968 to 1972:-
The Rolling Stones 1968-1972
The first thing to acknowledge is that the Stones faced a quandary in the aftermath of Exile On Main Street. Should they try to match or emulate their magnum opus, consciously move in a different direction, or just see where things naturally took them? On balance, they appear to have followed the latter option, perhaps sensing that the first would invite disaster, and that the second would impose a straitjacket.
The first album which the band released after "Exile" was Goats Head Soup, which unsurprisingly betrays most signs of the comedown from the fertile and productive days of 68-72. Just as it is often proclaimed that the classic 1972 double album is largely a "Keith album", then at first glance its follow-up shows up more of Mick Jagger's fingerprints, stylistically as well as lyrically.
A certain "fog" and pall hangs over this record, symptomatic of fatigue and jadedness, the effect being similar to a hangover (which, in career terms, this album essentially was). The emphasis of the lyrics has changed from the vibrant mixture of "Exile" to an overall, almost sinister, gloominess. The tone is set with the opening number, "Dancing With Mr D". Electric piano and wah-wah guitar abound, making this LP distinctly "of its time", an accusation that can not be as easily levelled at "Exile".
It has often been asserted that Exile On Main Street represented the culmination of everything which the Stones had been striving towards for the previous decade. After scaling the metaphorical peak, the 1973 follow-up sees them wearily, if happily, descending, seemingly not taking too much trouble over the precise route down, or the style in which it was accomplished.
After the menace of the aforementioned "Dancing with Mr D", we move on to the languid "100 Years Ago". It is driven by electric piano, and contains just a trace of the magic of earlier albums, possessing a melodic shape and sense of purpose, but at the same time, it is also very typical of what was to characterise the mid-70s output. In these respects it feels like a hinge between eras. Similar sentiments could be applied to the song which follows, "Coming Down Again".
"Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)" is possibly the strongest and most memorable track on the album, having genuine drive and abundant drama. The lyrics complement the music, and greatly contribute to the overall effect. This is one of the songs on Goats Head Soup on which the band sounds truly interested, focused and motivated. It has also proved very effective in the concert environment.
I imagine that "Angie" has the knack of dividing opinion among Stones fans, but looking at things objectively it is a fine and strong pop/rock composition, featuring a confident and authoritative Jagger vocal. The song also serves to anchor an album which can feel rather lacking in direction and purpose.
"Silver Train" borders on "Stones by numbers", and is the rootiest number on the record, largely by dint of the slide guitar flourishes. Although a touch bland, and "meat and potatoes", it does inject some welcome relief in the context of what surrounds it. The next item, "Hide Your Love", is another track which although in itself unremarkable, does hark back vaguely to the glories of 1968-72.
Another ballad-like track follows in the shape of "Winter". Largely unexceptional, it seeks to project itself as an epic, but ends up doing very little and going almost nowhere. The run of superior mediocrity continues with "Can You Hear The Music" which, although equipped with a reasonably promising melodic base, is let down by a failure to accentuate and exploit its strengths. A missed opportunity, methinks....
When people refer to the Stones descending into self-parody, "Star Star" could be presented as Exhibit A. It is difficult to ascertain what is and what is not intentionally tongue-in-cheek, and this song comes dangerously close to being the fly in the ointment. In a strange way, it is an apt way to close this album and presage the Stones' future career.
Having gone through Goats Head Soup track by track, my conclusion is that it contains some decent songs, and flashes of excellent musicianship, but the overall effect is diminished by the sense of inertia, and a shortage of energy and inspiration. It is by no means a bad album, and it has a kind of semi-kitsch period charm of its own, exemplifying the sluggish hedonism which coloured much of the Stones' work for some time afterwards.