The one thing that strikes me more than anything else whenever I listen to Exile on Main Street is how at odds the album’s legendary backstory is with the recording itself. I know the conventional wisdom is that Exile has the Rolling Stones at their roughest and rawest, but these songs just sound so…tight. Even the alternate takes on disc two of this stunning, brand-new reissue sound more polished than sessions that were conducted surrounded by that many drugs and band hangers-on have any right to.
On paper, Exile is an unlikely pick to be the Stones album that shows up in every greatest-of-all-time discussion you’ll ever see. It’s over an hour long, and only two of its songs (“Happy” and “Tumbling Dice”) are ones you’re ever likely to hear on a classic-rock station. At the time, it was widely panned for being overindulgent, and even Mick Jagger has had less-than-kind words for it over the years. The band was in disarray during its making due to Keith Richards’ growing heroin problem and the band’s tax troubles. But over time Exile has emerged as the Stones’ defining album-length statement for sheer force of sound alone.
Not a lot can be said about the songs themselves that hasn’t been said in any given Rolling Stone Greatest Albums of All Time special issue. Exile is without question the best cross-section of everything the Stones have ever tried to do, from balls-out rockers (“Rip This Joint”) to straight blues (“Shake Your Hips”) to country (“Sweet Virginia”) to gospel (the album’s clear standout, “Shine a Light”). It’s weird to say that Exile sounds like the most cohesive Stones album, since bassist Bill Wyman sat out most of the sessions and producer Jimmy Miller filled in for Charlie Watts on drums on several tracks, but the band is completely locked-in and playing for their well-being throughout.
For the most part, the bonus disc is pretty great too. We can disregard the alternate takes of “Loving Cup” and “Soul Survivor,” which are about as tedious as most demo versions record companies try to tack onto these kinds of reissues, but the unreleased songs (particularly “Plundered My Soul” and the ballad “Following the River”) are absolutely worth re-buying the album for. Like, could-have-been-on the album good. I don’t even care that the vocal tracks are 2009 Mick—he sounds great, and somehow even the leftover tracks are as tight and well-arranged as anything that made the final cut.
You shouldn’t need me to tell you to buy this—any self-respecting fan of rock music should own Exile already. And if you do, buy it again. The remastering is great, and the bonus disc is the rare add-on to a classic album that genuinely sheds new light on the recording.