Why Am I Reviewing Voodoo Lounge?
Revisiting The Sopranos led me back to Voodoo Lounge by The Rolling Stones, the first album I ever hated.
The final scene of Season 2 of The Sopranos is a montage that give the viewer an update on the character’s emotional state. Tony’s daughter Meadow graduating high school, a gambling addict leaving town, Tony himself, resplendent with cigar in his gaudy living room. There’s no dialogue. A song kicks in. Notes pour out of an electric guitar. For a moment, it sounds like a toddler ran his hand across a plugged-in Telecaster. Then we hear the semblance of a melody, then a voice, croaking out the opening lyrics:
You know we do takeaway
We deliver too
Open 24 Hours
Just waitin’ on a call from you
Harmonies join the lead vocal just as it starts to get too bleak. By the time the loose rattle-y snares kick in, you’re deep in it. It’s spare and huge at the same time. The first time I watched The Sopranos I probably thought, “I don’t know what that song was but it was great.” The second time I watched The Sopranos, I looked it up. It’s “Thru and Thru” by the Rolling Stones.
How had I never heard this song before?
It’s a song by one of the biggest bands in the world and almost no one I know had heard it. It isn’t easily recognizable as The Stones because it’s a Keith Richards vocal and a rough one at that. Also, it’s on the album Voodoo Lounge, the first record I ever remember being snobby about.
In 1994, the Rolling Stones sucked. They were played on MTV but they weren’t cool with anyone who liked Nirvana, Green Day or Salt n’ Pepa. The Rolling Stones were dinosaurs. The first single and lead off track off Voodoo Lounge was “Love Is Strong” which had a very expensive video full of young models stomping around a cityscape like Godzilla while Mick and Keith strutted around. The video didn’t do them any favors. The models looked like gleaming skyscrapers, Charlie Watts looked like an old bank they were about to tear down.
During approximately my 10th Great Sopranos Rewatch (which you should do right now by the way,) “Thru and Thru” grabbed me again. How could a song this good be on an album I’ve only ever known as terrible?
Voodoo Lounge opens with “Love Is Strong” so we’re on familiar turf. Had “Love Is Strong” been released in 1980, it would be regarded as a slinky classic like “Miss You” but the line, “You make me hard/You make me weak” sounds a lot worse coming from the mouth of a man in hs 50's. The sexual encounter Jagger describes sounds like a freak accident, not a regular fuck. Somehow, removed from the context of a bunch of old guys trying to sound relevant, it actually does sound relevant.
The second track, “You Got Me Rocking” is such a classic-sounding Stones track that I actually thought it was on Tattoo You or another solid Stones record that you can buy in a used record bin for two dollars. The instant familiarity with the first two songs makes them tough to evaluate. They sound like The Rolling Stones. What can you say about it? It’s like reviewing “Happy Birthday” after your friends sing it to you at your party. It’s just a thing that exists. After a Stones-by-numbers start, things get weird — and for a while — pretty great.
If you are a Stones devotee, or at least saw the Keith Richards documentary on Netflix, you know that Keith is a huge country music fan. “Fan” isn’t the right word. The guy played with Gram Parsons. But like any English guy trying to sound like he’s from Nashville, there’s always an element of play-acting to the proceedings. “The Worst”, finds Keith in front porch mode. Fiddle and lap steel wash over his cracked voice. There’s something very depressing about a guy who has been through marriages, divorces, addiction and infidelity landing on this sentiment.
Well I said from the first
I’m the worst
Kind of guy for you to be around
Keith has been through it all and came to the conclusion that he’s a piece of shit.
The first Rolling Stones song I really loved is “I Am Waiting,” which is used tremendously in Wes Anderson’s dork classic Rushmore. It’s still my favorite kind of Rolling Stones song. It’s precious and vulnerable and when Jagger adds the edge to his voice, he actually seems hurt and relatable. Voodoo Lounge has one of these songs. “New Faces” opens with a harpsichord and jangly acoustic guitars. Jagger is at his best here, sounding like he wants to be singing this song. “Moon Is Up,” the next track, is equally engaged but now they’re playing around with Heartbreakers-style pop rock. For all the Mick/Keith influence in Tom Petty’s music, “Moon Is Up” sounds like they might be borrowing back.
The emotional centerpiece of Voodoo Lounge is “Out Of Tears” which should be mentioned in the same breath as “Wild Horses” and “Moonlight Mile” when listing the great Rolling Stones ballads. It even has a signature voice crack on the line, “”I just can’t pour my heart out.” It’s a perfect song. Voodoo Lounge is a misunderstood classic and should be counted as a modern clas— OH WAIT these guys are about to get really really horny.
The Stones waste the emotional heft of “Out Of Tears” and veer back into old rock dude mode with “I Go Wild,” a forgettable song with a forgettable chorus and a repetitive, grating verse riff. The dirty grandpa shtick reaches a peak with the Keith-sung “Suck On the Jugular” and the Mick-penned “Brand New Car” which features this truly disgusting lyric:
Jack her up baby, go on, open the hood
I want to check if her oil smells good
Mmm smells like caviar.”
Like all aging rock stars, the Rolling Stones also need to let you know that they still think about the plight of the common man. If U2 have a song about the plight of war-town cities and dying orphans, by god so will the Stones. “Blinded By Rainbows” features a lyric about a child watching their father get blown up by a Semtex bomb. It is a huge bummer that is so heavy-handed it feels like this guy wrote it.
Things are getting unlisteniable and then…there it is. Track 14. “Thru and Thru, the song from the Sopranos that brought me to Voodoo Lounge in the first place. In the context of the record it seems even more stark and strange. It accomplishes something that almost no band as big and ubiquitious as The Rolling Stones can do. It sounds like completely new.