Of the four "classic" studio albums released by the Rolling Stones between 1968 and 1972, Let It Bleed, their 1969 effort, has traditionally inspired the most mixed feelings in me. Made during a time of turmoil in the band, with the decline and subsequent death of Brian Jones, it has commonly been described as one of the cultural artefacts which most cogently captures the close of a decade and its attendant idealism.
Much has been made of how vividly the record evokes the disillusioning tail end of the Sixties, but I often thought in the past that this has hampered an objective appraisal of the album's musical merits. Just lately, however, I have come to realize that my own views about its perceived sociopolitical weight has clouded my own judgement on the artistic offerings contained within. Some concentration and analysis is required to fully appreciate it.
The album is not as uniformly "rustic" as Beggars Banquet, and this can make it seem disjointed. I would go so far as to conclude that Let It Bleed actually contains less filler than its 1968 predecessor, although strangely there are also fewer memorable or "classic" songs here. Only "Gimme Shelter" truly resonates these days.
Whereas the underlying mood before was part anger, part confusion, part defiance, here there is more a sense of fear, ennui and resignation. Many of the songs almost drift by unnoticed rather than grabbing the listener by the throat and demanding attention.
"Gimme Shelter" looms ever larger as one of the group's towering achievements, both for its relevance and for its musical power. The multiple parts performed by Keith Richards, including the oft-overlooked thundering rhythm guitar, Charlie Watts' drumming, the dramatic vocal intervention of Merry Clayton and Mick Jagger's harsh harmonica interludes.
It is easy to disregard the fact that the stylistic thrust of Let It Bleed is not fundamentally different from that which characterized the previous record made by the band. A country-blues ambience is clearly evident on such tracks as "Love In Vain", "Country Honk" and "You Got The Silver". However, the sound is somewhat "cleaner" than before, and this can mislead one into thinking that there had been a profound departure between 1968 and 1969.
A couple of tracks situated in the middle of the album help to lighten the mood, for different reasons. "Live With Me" can seem like a lightweight item, but its danceability and aggressive rigour are welcome in a contextual way. On the other hand, "Let It Bleed", the title track, instills levity with its risque lyrics and ebullient, almost tongue-in-cheek register.
For a long time I had a blind spot about the studio version of "Midnight Rambler", as it appeared clearly inferior to the version later included on Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out, and the production felt cloudy and muddy. However, I now consider that this is one of those tracks which requires real listening, and the clinical and cold feel here is actually highly appropriate. "Monkey Man" serves a similar purpose to "Live With Me", in its injection of energy, although it has an added drama and menace which makes it one of the more underrated cuts on this LP.
"You Can't Always Get What You Want" is the other popularly "iconic" song on the album, forming a potent pair of bookends along with "Gimme Shelter". I must admit that I prefer the "single" versions, though, as they are shorn of the "choral" introduction...
Of course, Let It Bleed marked the debut of Mick Taylor on a Rolling Stones album, and although his role is limited, his slide guitar touches, even though low in the mix, indicate the way in which his talents would enhance the sonic tapestry of the band in the four or five years ahead.
So, Let It Bleed is prone to be misunderstood. It can seem a forbidding prospect, but if one gets past the mildly unwelcoming exterior it is revealed as a substantial, intriguing and entertaining collection, and it should not be regarded as in any major way inferior to the other works in the Stones' golden 68-72 run.