"Tattoo You" may not be the Rolling Stones' best alblum since "Exile on Main Street," as the hype proclaims. It is however, the truest to the menacing, R&B-infused style that has won this most celebrated of rock bands its longevity and appeal.
Like all of the Stone's best albums, this one is uneven and sometimes chaotic, its jagged edges tearing into the seamless professionalism that has marred the group's recent works. Its lack of order is of the variety that compels one to think and dance at the same time, to tamper with and tease some very basic observations without ever taking them too seriously.
The title itself, unspecific as it is to any particular song on the album, invites a game of free association. A Bowie-like Mick Jagger graces the front cover, an earringed Keith Richards the back. The natural marks of age -- Jagger's laugh lines and Richards' spectacular Nbeanderthal jaw -- have been replaced with their equivalent in symbology, an elaborate network of tattoos.
Thus age, which shows no favoritism to fame or money, puts its signature on these long-lived rock and rollers just as indelibly as they have put theirs on nearly three decades of popular culture. Jagger's highly stylized tattoo patterns evoke a deja vu reflection of the current acid renaissance, while the harsh, zigzag lines decorating Richards' face bring to mind the tyranny of a rasher, more random needle.
Then of course there's the tatoo of the music itself. The album opens, appropriately enough, wiht "Start Me Up," a rousing piece whose structures hark back to the traditions of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Brown Sugar." The song uses the tried-and-true imagery of car-as-sex-metaphor ("My eyes dilate/my lips go green/My hands get queasy/she's a mean, mean machine"), but its transparent jargon may make it the biggest cocaine anthem since Jackson Browne ran out of gas.
"Hang Fire" follows, as intelligent a song about England's potentially explosive employment problems as has been written. Its surf music intro heats up into a full-scale blaze by the chorus, yet jagger maintains his usual distance from overblown emotionalism.
"Slave" is one of the album's more complex tunes, even though it has very little lyrical content other than choruses of "Don't wanna be your slave" alternating with exhortative chants of "Do it/do it/do it." A darker, more ominous "Beast of Burden," the song is lent a funky ferocity by bluesy organ rioffs and the sax-playing of Sony Rolins. En the solo, Rolins refuses to conform to the simple structure of the progression, providing an obstinate musical parellel for the lyrics.
"Little T & A" comes next, as if to ensure the Stones' reputation for inconsistency. A true throwaway, it has little to recommend it other than a few sloppily played guitar riffs and some half-hearted vocal posing by Jagger, and even the Glimmer Twins' legendary misogyny seems a bit wimpy here. (Since when did the Stones feel compelled to euphemism?)
Side one is redeemed, however, with "Black Limousine," a solid rocker, born for airplay, which features one fine Chuck Berry licks. The lyrics concern the problems caused by the passing of time, as well as of money and looks:
Remember when we used to ride around
In a big black limousine . . .
I get so scared . . .
Look at your face now, baby
Look at you, look at me
The second side opens with "Neighbors," a curious chaos of new-wave urgency and drive, but a failure nonetheless. The hollowed-out percussion pattern is interesting -- something like Ras Baboo's style, with the humor and ebullience removed -- but not enought to make the tune memorable.
"Worried About You" is an improvement, the kind of song Jagger gets wired about. When he's cooking, Jagger can make the most ungrammatical, unoriginal lyrics sound terrific and fresh ("Just like your burnedout cigarette/You threw away my love"). Unfortunately, Jagger insists on using the falsetto that made "Emotional Rescue" such disco drudgery, and here he sounds alarmingly like Flip Wilson. "Tops," on the other hand, makes better use of Jagger's soul inclinations -- and his falsetto.
The gem on this side is "Heaven," whose intro sounds like the place must look. Almost devoid of lyrics, the song is as close to an instrumental as the Stones usually get, and it virtually glitters with Hendrix-style chording and sensitivity to darkness, echo and delay.
"No Use in Crying" opens with a gospel-style piano and a rolling 6/8 chorus, and Jagger's treatment of the bitter lyrics is cutting and cruel:
Stand out on the balcony
Looking way across the sea
If you see your ship sailin in
Baby, it's not me
It's not me
The album ends with "Waiting on a Friend," a song that depends largely on one's perception of it:
Watchin' girls passin by
It ain't the latest thing
I'm just standin' in the doorway . . .
I'm not waiting on a lady
I'm just waiting on a friend It's been suggested that this song is evidence of a softening of the group's attitude about women. That's about as likely as the idea ;that they're taking a hard line against decadence and illicit thrills. Anyway, the piece is nice vintage Stones, with ringing guitars, delayed percussion and uneven harmonies.
All in all. "Tatoo You"" is true to the Stones' earlier work because of its ragged edges and throwaways, its occasional carelessness. It may not offewr everything one wants from the world's greatest rock band, but coming as it does from the world's oldest rock band, it certainly fills the need.