Well, thank goodness. From the sound of this record, it appears Mick Jagger and Keith Richards's recent verbal jousting wasn't created only to stir up interest—one more last time—in the Stones. The Glimmer Twins' antagonistic relationship apparently served as a bad-tempered muse to inspire (or cajole) the two men to write their best songs of the '80s.
Steel Wheels was recorded in two months, a land-speed mark for a band that has typically spent a year on its albums. But it's understandable if, after 25 years, Jagger and Richards want to spend a minimum amount of time together.
Anyway, the album's pace is exhilarating—listening to it is like being in a canoe as it hits the rapids. Richards and Ron Wood are at their best as a tenacious guitar tandem, lighting up such songs as "Hold On to Your Hat" and "Sad, Sad, Sad." Each track sounds like a close friend's voice, familiar and reassuring, yet the band tries to reach beyond the listener's expectations. "Terrifying" is a bubbling pot of voodoo funk and "Continental Drift," a semi-tribute to the late Brian Jones recorded with Morocco's Master Musicians of Joujouka, evokes the Police at their Third Worldly best. The album's grandest song might be "Rock and a Hard Place," a melding of rock and soul.
What's that? It can't be all that great?
Well, all right, the lyrics are more tepid than the usual bad-boy lines we have come to expect from the Stones—better to be nasty than nondescript. And Mick shows a tendency to growl a bit, none too convincingly, when he wants to sound angry.
This remains an unexpectedly strong set of tunes. If it is the Stones' parting shot, Steel Wheels goes straight to the bull's-eye. (Columbia)