You don't know from pouty. Not like Mick Jagger does.

For the most part, Jagger's life would seem to be pretty swell: At the golden age of 62, the Rolling Stones frontman has his health, his knighthood, his considerable fame and his gazillion-dollar fortune -- a French-countryside castle inclusive.

And yet, on the Stones' new recording, "A Bigger Bang," Jagger's legendary lips are locked in a full-on frown as he goes on and on about his girl problems, of which he apparently has plenty: The majority of the 14 songs he sings on the 16-track album are about his various woes with women -- from those who've already jilted Jagger ("Streets of Love," "She Saw Me Coming," "It Won't Take Long") to one who's about to ("Let Me Down Slow").

It's not just Jagger who has the lovesick blues. Keith Richards mines the subject in his two songs: "Infamy," in which he warbles, "All you do is wipe the floor with me," and the brilliantly bereft "This Place Is Empty."

But in the eight years since the release of the last Stones studio album, "Bridges to Babylon," while Richards was starring in "Pirates of the Caribbean" or whatever and drummer Charlie Watts was being treated for throat cancer, the headlines about Jagger pretty much centered on his love life.

For instance, the fling (and the baby) he had with Brazilian underwear model Luciana Gimenez Morad -- one in an ongoing series of infidelities that thrilled tabloid editors but didn't quite have the same effect on Jagger's wife, Jerry Hall, who summarily filed for divorce. The marriage was eventually annulled, Hall got a nice chunk of change and then, just for fun, recorded a song attacking her ex.

Thus, that pout.

As it turns out, it's a pretty good look for Jagger -- especially as it's framed on "A Bigger Bang." The album marks a long-overdue return to the gritty, stripped-down studio sound that the Stones seemed to have abandoned, and it stands as the group's finest new recording since 1981's "Tattoo You." (Lest you think this is anything close to a four-star, run-out-and-buy-it-NOW endorsement, though, let us point out that competition for the "Finest Album Since . . ." designation wasn't exactly fierce: The Stones' recent catalogue is hardly the stuff a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame resume is made of. History most certainly will not recall "A Bigger Bang" as an essential Rolling Stones album; just as one of the band's best excuses to tour in some time.)

Eschewing the sort of slick production and musical overembellishment that marked most of their musical output of the past quarter-century -- a period during which the group desperately tried to remain relevant as a contemporary rock band rather than simply wearing the crown of pop music's most successful oldies act -- the Stones have basically returned to their roots by kicking all the interlopers out of the studio, from the horn section to hipster sonic architects like the Dust Brothers.

Now, it's just the aged producer Don Was leading Jagger, Richards, Watts, longtime second guitarist Ronnie Wood and a few sidemen (primarily pianist Chuck Leavell and bassist Darryl Jones) through the rawest, most urgent-sounding collection of new Stones songs in at least two decades.

On two songs ("Dangerous Beauty" and the raggedy blues number "Back of My Hand"), the group totally closes ranks, with Jagger, Richards and Watts -- together since 1963 -- handling all of the instruments themselves. Jagger alone plays four on "Back of My Hand," including a howling slide guitar.

The end result: The Rolling Stones once again sound like . . . the Rolling Stones.

While this means they're often copying themselves by repeating old rhythms and riffs, it beats the alternative: a band that doesn't play to its strengths as it awkwardly refuses to act its age.

Now, with "A Bigger Bang," we can stop already with the geriatrics jokes and instead focus on Jerryatrics, etc.: Is there any question that the scathing blues-rocker "Oh No Not You Again," is about Hall? Not with this bitterly devastating chorus: "Oh no, not you again / [Messing] up my life / It was bad the first time / I can't stand it twice."

Jagger comes out swinging, too, on "Sweet Neo Con." Apparently figuring that all's fair in love and war, he takes a song-length swipe at the Bush administration for its fighting ways -- and in the process, rhymes "certain" with "Halliburton" and "hypocrite" with "crock of," well . . . you know. Alas, despite the hype surrounding the first overtly political song in the Stones' 44-year history, the musically toothless "Sweet Neo Con" is far more interesting to discuss than to hear.

For all his anger, though, Jagger sounds far more vulnerable than vitriolic throughout "A Bigger Bang." On the haunting ballad "Laugh, I Nearly Died," he sings that he's "feeling all alone / I lost my direction / And I lost my home." And on the archetypal alt-country song "Biggest Mistake," he's downright disconsolate as he admits to having blown "a perfect love match." Bad for him, but good for us schadenfreudists, as we get to witness Jagger perfect that pout.

On "A Bigger Bang," Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones return to a grittier, stripped-down sound.