Even by their own admission, The Rolling Stones haven’t struck perfection every single time. However, Exile On Main Street is as close to flawless as anything in their repertoire, yet, Mick Jagger holds mixed feelings towards the project.
The album arrived when The Stones were on a hot streak following their previous albums Sticky Fingers and Let It Bleed. Although they were firing on all cylinders on the musical front, they’d become the press’ enemy after obtaining tax exile status in the South of France amid a growing rap sheet of drug offences. Upon release, the album was widely panned by the media. However, this almost certainly had more to do with their tabloid villainy than their art.
As the years have passed and revisions have continued, the record is almost universally recognised as a masterpiece. However, one of the few people who isn’t full of superlatives for the LP is Mick Jagger. Their decision to make Exile On Main Street an 18 track double LP is one that he believes backfired, and the singer was also critical about his lyricism.
“I think the problem was that everyone was getting just a little wacky,” Jagger explained to Paul Du Noyer in 2001 about the band’s headspace during the creation of the record. “And we actually left England… the point of this was that we owed so much money to the tax authorities, and [he makes a reference here to their ex-manager Allen Klein], that we had to leave England at that point, and it was quite an uprooting, which is why it was called Exile On Main Street.”
Speaking about the songs specifically, the singer added, “The songs themselves are not really… I’m not saying they’re no good, but it’s funny… first of all, there’s a lot of songs, so it’s hard to keep up the standard, so to speak. But when you actually come to do them, there’s a lot of songs that are really, like, not songs at all, like ‘Casino Boogie’.” It’s a difficult venture, producing such a hefty record, but most would agree The Stones delivered a cracker.
“They’re really nicely played and everything,” conceded Jagger, “but there’s no hooks in them and there’s no memorable lyrics in them. ‘Sweet Black Angel’, these are very nice songs, but nobody’s ever gonna… It’s not my thing to get up and play them.” When probed by Du Noyer about if he held these worries towards the album during the recording process, Jagger hesitantly admitted, “I think you knew at the time.”
Exile On Main Street is arguably the most potent body of work of the band’s career. However, the only noteworthy single, in regards to record sales, was ‘Tumbling Dice’, and Jagger understood why nothing else charted. He commented, “There’s not a list of outstanding songs, I think that’s what we’re saying. But somehow, as an album, it has a great mood.”
The songs on Exile On Main Street are a sum of their parts, and when they come together as one, something magical transcends. It’s not a string of radio-friendly singles glued together in sporadic order. Instead, it’s a record that pays the listener dividends for persevering from start to finish as The Stones intended it.