Today marks the much-publicized re-release of The Rolling Stones’s 1972 double album Exile on Main Street in “deluxe edition”, “super deluxe edition”, “original remastered recording”, and $40 “vinyl” versions – the latter for collectors too young to remember how cheap new LPs were.
I’m not a wild-eyed Rolling Stones fan. I’ve never seen them live and never had a powerful desire to — in fact, I turned down an invitation from my college housemates because I didn’t want to suffer through the Steel Wheels stop at cram-packed, acoustically sucky Texas Stadium. But trust me that Exile deserves the big re-release hype, if not necessarily the big re-release price tag. It’s one of those idiosyncratic, hypnotically detailed song cycles you’ll cherish on the proverbial desert island.
All the adjectives fans have applied to the original 18 song collection are accurate – mostly mid-tempo, sludgy, skanky, dawdling, and weirdly blissed-out. The band members sound like they’re playing inside a dark, echoey tunnel and want to take full advantage of the underground possibilities. Rarely have I heard an album that so casually and definitively eliminates the flimsy but aggressively protected barriers between rock (“Happy”), country (“Sweet Virginia”), gospel (“I Just Want to See His Face”), soul (“Sweet Black Angel”), folk (“Torn and Frayed”), and blues (“Stop Breaking Down”). The styles bleed into each other – often in a single song – but you never feel the tension.
If you haven’t heard Exile on Main Street, skip the pricey bonus editions and just buy a copy of the original. And listen to it all the way through, several times, with patience. Like any grim and loosely plotted cult movie, the great moments are savored by experiencing the whole sordid event from beginning to end.