Yes, they’re back: The Rolling Stones have returned after five years with a new album, Voodoo Lounge, the first fruits of their $45 million contract with Virgin Records. In the past, a new Stones record was a certified Event in rock & roll. But how does Voodoo Lounge fit into this era of grunge, acid jazz, hip-hop bebop, and pop divas? To confront these and other vital questions, we decided to get our ya-ya’s out by devoting every inch of space in this section to this bound-to-be-debated album, with reviews by music critic David Browne, critics-at-large Greg Sandow and Ken Tucker, and our usual gang of contributors. (We’ve asked them to divulge their ages to see if the generation gap still exists.) Read on to see how those dice still tumble.
Well, what a surprise: The Rolling Stones aren’t pretending they’re a ’90s band on Voodoo Lounge, but they’ve used the freedom of ’90s rock to make a fascinating album. Not since the ’60s has the group used so many adventurous sounds — the prim ching of a harpsichord, for instance, blending with acoustic guitars in ”New Faces” or the snuffling nocturnal chatter of ”Moon Is Up.” Never, ever, has a Stones song been so sparsely challenging as ”Thru and Thru,” in which, more than two minutes after a drumless start, the trembling thread of Keith Richards’ voice is slammed by sudden, massive percussion.
Yes, some tracks are straight-ahead rockers, in familiar Stones styles, but their lyrics come alive with troubled noir imagery, and their hooks are, by miles, the best from the band since Some Girls, or maybe even Exile on Main St.
Voodoo Lounge doesn’t say anything important, and the singer — ol’-what’s-his-name — sometimes sounds absent-minded, as if he’s phoning in his attitude. But if an album this tasty got released by any band other than the Stones, we’d be talking about it for the rest of the year. A-
-Greg Sandow, 51
Voodoo Lounge isn’t the Rolling Stones; it’s Mick and Keith solos melded together. And the two men come off as essentially bored by but politely respectful of one another’s turf, like anyone else resigned to a marriage that’s cheaper to keep intact than to break up.
No incarnation of the Stones has ever sounded so inauthentic or insincere, whether vamping on blues, camping on country, upchucking Berry, or regurgitating ”As Tears Go By” (the prototypical Stones ballad, this time rendered as ”Out of Tears”). Live, the world’s greatest shuck-and-jive band will probably appear to be reasonably simulating passion (from the 50-yard line of your local football field, anyway). But what these voodoo lounge lizards can’t fake is heart.
As the Stones are now satisfied to parody rather than top themselves, Voodoo Lounge also answers the question about what function Bill Wyman (whose bass playing was rarely the high point of any mix) actually served: He was the critic. C+
-Deborah Frost, 40
In the ’80s, the Rolling Stones tended to play out one mood over the course of an album. Here on Voodoo Lounge, however, producer Don Was doesn’t permit such self-indulgence; he insists they ring fresh on a variety of familiar styles. And so, after divesting itself of two amusing but generic rockers, Voodoo finds its juju in aching remorse (Keith on ”The Worst,” Mick on ”Out of Tears”), rank horniness, and tenderness (”Thru and Thru,” the album’s triumph). Is the rumble of Wyman’s bass missed? You bet. Is Watts still rock’s best drummer? Listen to ”Sparks Will Fly” and try to deny it. B+
-Ken Tucker, 40
Mick Jagger is a naughty boy. Here on Voodoo Lounge, he tweaks liberal and conservative noses, celebrating stalkers and sodomy. Too bad the other Rolling Stones’ old tricks don’t sound so fresh. Producer Was breathes life into routine filler with horns and harmoniums, but Watts’ drums have never sounded so sterile. B-
-Evelyn McDonnell, 29
The Rolling Stones are trying to sound like INXS or Eric Clapton when they’d be better off being Spin Doctors or Sir Mix-A-Lot. ”I Go Wild” has some nastiness, ”Brand New Car” is cute, Keith’s ”Thru and Thru” is a big, fat dirge, and the singing and the rhythm section still put Smashing Pumpkins to shame. But they haven’t sounded in tune with the times since Emotional Rescue in 1980, and they’re not getting any younger. B-
-Chuck Eddy, 33
By turns tart, nasty (Mick Jagger’s lyrics are as sexist as ever), punchy, and maudlin, Voodoo Lounge contains at least three instant classics (”You Got Me Rocking,” ”Out of Tears,” and ”Thru and Thru”) and a couple of sleepers that’ll surprise you in a month or two. Against all odds, the old men of rock & roll are alive and kicking the hell out of the competition, alternative and otherwise. A-
-Tom Sinclair, 37
No one could mistake Voodoo Lounge for a great Rolling Stones record, but at least it’s an ambitious one. Emphasizing elaborate ballads, the record often recalls their most contemplative period (shades of ”Love in Vain,” ”Lady Jane,” and the like). The rockers sound like bad impersonations of rip-off bands like Primal Scream, but in the better, slower numbers, Jagger and Richards face down age and loneliness in a more honest way than they have since the early ’70s. B
-Jim Farber, 35
Good news first: Watts’ masterful grooves endure Wyman’s absence, and Jagger’s juicy mouth harp is a welcome throwback. Drawbacks: a first track that doesn’t draw you in, embarrassing lyrics, and too many notes from new bassist Darryl Jones. As usual, the cuts with Keith’s grizzled lead vocals have more mojo. Voodoo Lounge is not a great Rolling Stones album, but their best in years — which is monumental in itself. A-
-Dimitri Ehrlich, 28
The boys don’t quite shake, rattle, and roll with the same fury they once did, and even Mick’s swollen-lipped growl sounds tame. But at least four tracks, including Keith’s spare ”The Worst,” are perfect for an Unplugged, and ”I Go Wild” is a genuine fist-pumper that should play well in concert — which is the point of this album, after all. B-
-Anderson Jones, 25
Looking through the CD’s photos, Charlie looks like his own grandfather, Keith’s an old cocktail waitress, and Mick learned a trick from Dorian Gray. Throughout these often tedious odes to sado-masochism, group sex, sodomy, jugular sucking, and other pastime jollies, one question remains: What else is new? Only the ballad, ”Out of Tears,” saves Voodoo Lounge‘s sorry butt. C-
-Alanna Nash, 43
For most of Voodoo Lounge, the Rolling Stones sound glad to be back. Charlie’s thumping tom-toms provide ”You Got Me Rocking” with the band’s customary swagger, and the salacious ”Sparks Will Fly” is a carnal delight that’s sure to piss off the PC. Even though a good third of the album is a throwaway, Voodoo Lounge proves the Stones still mix feisty and blue better than anyone. B+
-Bob Cannon, 39
Through the Past, Lightly: These 15 songs touch on various stages of the Rolling Stones’ career, but only two avoid cynicism and/or wish-fulfillment. ”Sparks Will Fly” has the buzzy, rocks-off energy of Exile, and ”New Faces” recalls the lace sleeves of the Between the Buttons era. That’s it for insights, though: The rest veers from creaky stud posturing to the truly odd (”Blinded by Rainbows,” which may or may not be an answer song to ”Sympathy for the Devil”). C+
-Ty Burr, 36
The Glimmer Twins’ moment of truth here is ”Sparks Will Fly,” when Jagger spits out some chancy lyrics. If he can’t make you buy it, then all the little devices that producer Was uses to create excitement — like dropping out the bass or drums — won’t mean jack. To his credit, Jagger pulls it off without trying too hard to sell it. Same goes for the rest of this sometimes uneven, but energetic, album. B+
-James Bernard, 28
What would the best critics say? Butt-head: These dudes sound like the Black Crowes. Beavis: Yeah, but I heard Keanu Richards had the blood sucked out of him and stuff and that he’s a vampire and that’s why they have a song called ”Suck on the Jugular.” Butt-head: Whoa! Hey, Beavis, the lead singer just sang ”You make me hard,” and he’s like older than our parents! Beavis: (Excitedly) Butt-head! There’s like pictures of skeletons and stuff in this booklet and there’s a song about fire! Butt-head: Hey, do you think Ron Wood has one? Heh, heh I said wood. This sucks — I’d rather listen to GWAR. Uh, C+.
-Michelle Romero, 28