There really was simply no way for The Rolling Stones to surpass the triumph of their previous album, one of the greatest in rock’s history. The fact that between 1968 and 1972 the Stones were about as flawless as any band has ever been made the job of an Exile On Main St. followup even more difficult. It is the lofty expectations placed on the band that have made the critical reviews of 1973’s Goats Head Soup so untrustworthy. I’ve been guilty of this myself, at one time in my life dismissing Goats Head Soup as a largely terrible album. It is not a terrible album. Nor is it a great album.
Soup marks the point where, as Keith Richards once said, “I picked up the smack and Mick picked up the slack.” It is very much Mick Jagger’s album, evidenced by the atrocious front cover (the back cover is an equally atrocious Keith picture). For this reason, the album sounds much less unified than their previous efforts. For me, Goats Head Soup is a precursor to what the band has turned into over the past 30 years: a professional touring and recording act making solid, workman-like albums that run high on sound and low on inspiration.
Unlike their albums from Beggars Banquet to Exile, Goats Head Soup today sounds very much of its time. It should have “1973” stamped on every groove. That’s not to say that there isn’t an awful lot of good, and even great, stuff on the album. There are two Stones classics on the album, the ballad “Angie” and the rocker “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” and two songs that should have been Stones classics, “Silver Train” and “Star Star.”
The album kicks off with “Dancing With Mr. D,” yet another song wherein Jagger sings about a malevolent identity, in this case the personification of Death. Coming after “Sympathy For The Devil” and “Midnight Rambler,” not to mention other songs wherein Jagger trips the dark fantastic (“Let It Bleed,” “Monkey Man,” “Brown Sugar”), “Dancing” sounds like a cartoon version of the theme. The music, led by Mick Taylor’s great slide guitar, Nicky Hopkins’s piano, and a snaky bass line (also played by Taylor) is great. It’s cleaner than the murky Exile, but it’s still raw enough to have real bite. The lyrics are Jagger on autopilot. Sex? Check! Death? Right here! Intoxication? Got it! It’s not a bad way to start an album, but after album openers like “Sympathy For The Devil,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Brown Sugar” and Rocks Off,” it is perhaps inevitable that “Dancing With Mr. D” should sound downright anemic. The music tries but the lyrics don’t, which makes the song both enjoyable and forgettable at the same time.One of the undeniable highlights of the album follows. The funky clavinet (played by Billy Preston) and a liquid guitar solo from Taylor give “100 Years Ago” a fantastic vibe. Jagger’s vocal is one of his best, and the lyrics are a great ode to nostalgia and fond memories of days gone by. There’s a brief interlude where Jagger camps it up by singing about how he’s a “lazy bones/ain’t got no time to waste away” but that’s soon overpowered by a return to the solid melody and a fine, raving end.
“Coming Down Again” is Keith’s showcase, a piano ballad that he’s been rewriting ever since. Again, a triumph of sound and feel and not songwriting. Like its later rewrites (Dirty Work‘s “Sleep Tonight,” especially), “Coming Down Again” takes an interminable length of time to say nothing. Other than a wicked line about slipping “my tongue in someone else’s pie,” most of the lyrics are just an endless repetition of the title. The piano is quite nice, and Keith’s vocal is excellent, but “Coming Down Again” is at least three minutes too long.
Goats Head Soup picks up dramatically from here with a run of great songs. “Heartbreaker” wears it’s Stevie Wonder influence on its sleeve but, run through the Stones more rock-oriented prism, emerges as a singularly funky tale of sadness and murder, and features a solid beat and great fills from Charlie Watts. “Angie” is solidly in line with some of the great Stones ballads, with its delicate acoustic guitars and Jagger’s plaintive vocals.
“Silver Train” is catchy, countrified blues with a great bass line from Keith Richards and a magnificently slurred vocal from Jagger and one of the few songs that might have fit on Exile On Main Street. It’s a souped-up “Sweet Virginia,” and a great showcase for Taylor whose blazing slide is everywhere.
The only thing that mars “Hide Your Love” is a vocal that is so blurry and indistinct it becomes little more than background noise. This, too, could have fit on Exile, but what is a standout on Soup would have sounded like a cross between “Ventilator Blues” and “Just Wanna See His Face” on the earlier album. It’s a great lost Stones track, with fine piano played by Jagger and Ian Stewart, and again Taylor struts his stuff.
The lovely ballad “Winter” presents something of a problem. It’s one of the best Stones ballads, with excellent lyrics and vocal from Mick Jagger. There is a lush string section underpinning the song, and some searing lead guitar from Mick Taylor. It’s a wonderful song. Unfortunately, it was a wonderful song two years earlier when it was called “Moonlight Mile” and was the closing track on Sticky Fingers. As good as “Winter” is, it’s still really a copy of a superior song. It’s still far better than “Can You Hear The Music,” which doesn’t know whether it wants to be rock or reggae, and fails at both.
The Stones turned up the salacious aspects of their career for the album closer, “Star Star,” an X-rated look at groupies set to a Chuck Berry riff. The lyric is funny, and Jagger’s delivery is spot-on. It’s not fit for the kids, and definitely not safe for playing at work, but it showcases the band’s sense of humor which has always been their secret weapon. The lyrics prevent “Star Star” from ever being played on the radio, so it’s not one of the band’s most well-known songs, but it’s a good way to end an album.
Goats Head Soup has its problems. There are some uninspired songs and performances, several of the songs linger past their stay fresh date, and the energy level of the band has clearly dropped a notch from the previous albums. Still, there is a bit of greatness and enough good material to praise. The Stones had done far better, but they will also do much, much worse.