Despite the hasty manner in which Blue & Lonesome was reportedly recorded, the Rolling Stones’s first covers album was a half-century in the making. The band has been playing songs written by 70-something-year-old American black men since they were scruffy 20-year-old kids. But now that the Stones are themselves in their 70s, they sound more natural covering the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, and Jimmy Reed.
Mick Jagger didn’t have the convincing growl on 1965’s “Commit a Crime” that he displays here, and back then the band couldn’t have pulled off starkly atmospheric tracks like “Little Rain” and “Hoo Doo Blues” with the same authenticity. On the latter, Jagger approximates a Delta bluesman more credibly than he did decades ago on “Prodigal Son” and “You Gotta Move.” There are moments here where the Stones also sound remarkably spry. Owing to Jagger’s concertedly youthful timbre and Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood’s nimble riffs, Willie Dixon’s “Just Like I Treat You” could pass for an outtake from 12 x 5; all it needs is Brian Jones shaking some maracas.
Unusually for a Stones album, the guitar work on Blue & Lonesome is almost secondary, with the exception of characteristically flashy cameos by Eric Clapton on two songs, as well as Wood’s wailing police siren riff on “Commit a Crime.” For the most part, the album belongs first to Jagger, and then to Charlie Watts. Much has been made about the former’s resiliency as a showman, considering his continued ability to enthrall stadium crowds and literally run laps around other performers young enough to be his grandchildren. But lost in that well-deserved praise is the fact that he’s become a much better singer in recent decades, even as most of his contemporaries’ voices have deteriorated into sad croaks.
Blue & Lonesome may represent Jagger’s most technically proficient and grittily emotive set of vocals this side of Exile on Main St. Years ago, he might have used a moody barnburner like this album’s Memphis Slim-penned title track as an opportunity to chew the scenery. Now, he really sells the song’s desperate tone with the full range of his voice, digging deep for gritty lows and leaping up for yelping, pleading highs. Jagger offers a wide range of emotional shades too, sounding earthy and intense on “Hate to See You Go” and like he’s having plain old fun on the album’s high-stepping opener, “Just Your Fool.” Jagger has also become an increasingly formidable player of the blues harp over time, using the instrument on nearly every track here and eliciting fond memories of “Midnight Rambler” in the process.
As for Watts, it’s true that his erstwhile rhythm-section partner, Bill Wyman, is missed more pointedly than at any time since he left the Stones in the early 1990s. (Wyman’s replacement, Darryl Jones, is far more technically proficient but lacks the in-the-pocket synergy with Watts that was so essential to the Stones’s original groove). But Watts does his best to rekindle that rhythm section’s old magic all on his own. He sounds positively animated behind the kit, turning his cracking snare shots on “Ride ‘em on Down” and his cymbal splashes on “Just Like I Treat You” into some of Blue & Lonesome‘s more exciting moments, thereby going beyond the metronomic but ignorable (to the casual fan) bedrock he usually provides.
Though the Stones are firing on all cylinders throughout Blue & Lonesome, and to a greater extent than they have in decades, they’re hamstrung by the inherent limitations of only playing Chicago blues covers; there are only so many 12- and 16-bar blues tunes you can string together in a row. The Stones’s earliest albums were composed primarily of blues covers, but that young band covered the likes of Chuck Berry and Otis Redding while also writing their own original songs. Furthermore, co-producer Don Was has been softening and thinning out the Stones’s sound since 1994’s Voodoo Lounge, and Blue & Lonesome lacks the grimy, lived-in feel that characterizes both the band’s best work and this album’s source material. Another producer more attuned to the essence of the blues could have wrung even more life out of the significance of the not-dead-yet Stones diving headlong back into the genre again after all these years.