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The Rolling Stones prove surprisingly warm and lively on 'Hackney Diamonds'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Mick Jagger is 80 years old. Keith Richards turns 80 in December, and the Rolling Stones have just released their first collection of new songs in 18 years. The album is called "Hackney Diamonds" and features guest appearances including Lady Gaga, Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney. Rock critic Ken Tucker says the album is surprisingly lively, with at least one song that can stand among their very best.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MESS IT UP")

THE ROLLING STONES: There she goes. Come on. (Singing) You stole my numbers, you stole my codes. You took my keys and then you nicked my phone. Seduced...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: In recent years, The Rolling Stones as a band have existed as a brand or rubber stamp, as when a TV ad or a movie soundtrack plugs in a few bars of "Gimme Shelter" or "Sympathy For The Devil" as a quick, too easy way to signal danger or decadence or doom. With the death of drummer Charlie Watts two years ago, the notion of a new Stones album meaning very much was, well, it's not something one really thought about. And so the immediate warmth of "Hackney Diamonds" comes as a pleasant shock.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET CLOSE")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Listen, I walk the city at midnight with the past strapped to my back. Lately, I can't get no sleep. I'm a real insomniac. I was chatting with a ghost, wants a hundred and a mask. Says I know you got the money. Where's the man behind the mask? I want to get close to you.

TUCKER: That's "Get Close," one of three songs that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards co-wrote with producer Andrew Watt. Watt has produced Post Malone and Justin Bieber, as well as recent work with veterans like Ozzy Osbourne and Iggy Pop. For this album, he keeps Jagger's vocals on an equal plane with the guitars and drums - drums provided mostly by Steve Jordan, but there are also two cuts with work that Charlie Watts did before his passing. Andrew Watt's production style here is to be as self-effacing as possible while the songs work up their own grooves.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRIVING ME TOO HARD")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) You're driving me too hard. You pushed it way too far. Every time I give a little bit you muscle in and take it all. You're driving me away. Why don't we just take a break? Where I'm heading to? You'll never know - Morocco or a corner bar. Look what...

TUCKER: That's "Driving Me Too Hard." Prior to releasing the album, two singles were issued. The first was "Angry," with a clenched Mick Jagger squawking, don't be angry with me. It was so mediocre, such a self-parody, that it made you want to avoid "Hackney Diamonds" in advance. But then they released a second song, "Sweet Sounds Of Heaven." It's everything "Angry" is not - loose and soulful, unafraid to seem sincere, and ambitious.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET SOUNDS OF HEAVEN")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) I hear the sweet, sweet sounds of heaven fallin' down, fallin' down to this Earth. I hear the sweet, sweetest sounds of heaven driftin' down, driftin' down to this Earth. Bless the Father, bless the Son. Hear the sound of the drums as they...

TUCKER: On "Sweet Sounds Of Heaven," Stevie Wonder plays keyboards that tumble into the guitars of Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, as Jagger's voice carries the melody. The cut is more than seven minutes long, and Lady Gaga starts singing background vocals about two minutes in. At first, you think the Stones are just using her to remind you of Merry Clayton's indomitable vocals on "Gimme Shelter." But then five minutes in, the music drops away, you think the song's over and Gaga just starts vamping, making a noise that Jagger picks up on, sending his own voice into a falsetto. And together, they bring the song to a new climax.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET SOUNDS OF HEAVEN")

LADY GAGA: (Singing) I smell the sweet, sweet scent of heaven coming down...

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Coming down...

LADY GAGA: (Singing) ...Coming down...

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) ...Coming down...

LADY GAGA: (Singing) ...To the Earth.

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) ...From the Earth. Oh, yeah.

LADY GAGA: (Singing) Oh, yeah.

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Oh, yeah.

LADY GAGA: (Singing) Oh, yeah.

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Oh, yeah.

LADY GAGA: (Singing) Oh, yeah.

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Yes. Come on.

LADY GAGA: (Singing) Oh.

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Come on.

LADY GAGA: (Singing) Oh, oh.

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Come on.

LADY GAGA: (Singing) Oh, oh.

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Yes. Yes.

LADY GAGA: (Singing) Oh, oh.

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Hear the gods laughing from above.

TUCKER: The stones conclude "Hackney Diamonds" with a cover of Muddy Waters' "Rollin' Stone." Just Mick and Keith on harmonica and acoustic guitar. It's the blues song the band took its name from. It's a very nice farewell, but the album really peaked just before that with "Sweet Sounds Of Heaven" about the Earthly pleasures of making music for which the Rolling Stones sound vigorously grateful.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed the Rolling Stones' new album called "Hackney Diamonds." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be filmmaker Werner Herzog. He goes to extremes to make films about extreme personalities, predicaments and places. He's made movies in the Amazon jungle, a documentary about a man who lived with grizzly bears until he was eaten by one. He's described two of his lead actors as mad men. He's written a new memoir. I hope you'll join us. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROLLING STONE BLUES")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Well, I wish I was a catfish swimming in the deep blue sea. I'd have all you good-looking women fishing after me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOKER T AND THE MG'S "GREEN ONIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ken Tucker
Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.