Eight years separate 2005's A Bigger Bang, the Rolling Stones' 24th album of original material, from its 1997 predecessor, Bridges to Babylon, the longest stretch of time between Stones albums in history, but unlike the three-year gap between 1986's Dirty Work and 1989's Steel Wheels, the band never really went away. They toured steadily, not just behind Bridges but behind the career-spanning 2002 compilation Forty Licks, and the steady activity paid off nicely, as the 2004 concert souvenir album Live Licks proved. The tight, sleek, muscular band showcased there was a surprise -- they played with a strength and swagger they hadn't had in years -- but a bigger surprise is that A Bigger Bang finds that reinvigorated band carrying its latter-day renaissance into the studio, turning in a sinewy, confident, satisfying album that's the band's best in years. Of course, every Stones album since their highly touted, self-conscious 1989 comeback, Steel Wheels, has been designed to get this kind of positive press, to get reviewers to haul out the cliché that this is their "best record since Exile on Main St." (Mick Jagger is so conscious of this, he deliberately compared Bigger Bang to Exile in all pre-release publicity and press, even if the scope and feel of Bang is very different from that 1972 classic), so it's hard not to take any praise with a grain of salt, but there is a big difference between this album and 1994's Voodoo Lounge. That album was deliberately classicist, touching on all of the signatures of classic mid-period, late-'60s/early-'70s Stones -- reviving the folk, country, and straight blues that balanced their trademark rockers -- and while it was often successful, it very much sounded like the Stones trying to be the Stones. What distinguishes A Bigger Bang is that it captures the Stones simply being the Stones, playing without guest stars, not trying to have a hit, not trying to adopt the production style of the day, not doing anything but lying back and playing.
Far from sounding like a lazy affair, the album rocks really hard, tearing out of the gate with "Rough Justice," the toughest, sleaziest, and flat-out best song Jagger and Richards have come up with in years. It's not a red herring, either -- "She Saw Me Coming," "Look What the Cat Dragged In," and the terrific "Oh No Not You Again," which finds Mick spitting out lyrics with venom and zeal, are equally as hard and exciting, but the album isn't simply a collection of rockers. The band delves into straight blues with "Back of My Hand," turns toward pop with "Let Me Down Slow," rides a disco groove reminiscent of "Emotional Rescue" on "Rain Fall Down," and has a number of ballads, highlighted by "Streets of Love" and Keith's late-night barroom anthem "This Place Is Empty," that benefit greatly from the stripped-down, uncluttered production by Don Was and the Glimmer Twins. Throughout the album, the interplay of the band is at the forefront, which is one of the reasons the record is so consistent: even the songs that drift toward the generic are redeemed by the sound of the greatest rock & roll band ever playing at a latter-day peak. And, make no mistake about it, the Stones sound better as a band than they have in years: there's an ease and assurance to their performances that are a joy to hear, whether they're settling into a soulful groove or rocking harder than any group of 60-year-olds should. But A Bigger Bang doesn't succeed simply because the Stones are great musicians, it also works because this is a strong set of Jagger-Richards originals -- naturally, the songs don't rival their standards from the '60s and '70s, but the best songs here more than hold their own with the best of their post-Exile work, and there are more good songs here than on any Stones album since Some Girls.
This may not be a startling comeback along the lines of Bob Dylan's Love and Theft, but that's fine, because over the last three decades the Stones haven't been about surprises: they've been about reliability. The problem is, they haven't always lived up to their promises, or when they did deliver the goods, it was sporadic and unpredictable. And that's what's unexpected about A Bigger Bang: they finally hold up their end of the bargain, delivering a strong, engaging, cohesive Rolling Stones album that finds everybody in prime form. Keith is loose and limber, Charlie is tight and controlled, Ronnie lays down some thrilling, greasy slide guitar, and Mick is having a grand time, making dirty jokes, baiting neo-cons, and sounding more committed to the Stones than he has in years. Best of all, this is a record where the band acknowledges its age and doesn't make a big deal about it: they're not in denial, trying to act like a younger band, they've simply accepted what they do best and go about doing it as if it's no big deal. But that's what makes A Bigger Bang a big deal: it's the Stones back in fighting form for the first time in years, and they have both the strength and the stamina to make the excellent latter-day effort everybody's been waiting for all these years.