After honing their sound on the brilliant but inconsistent Beggars Banquet and Let it Bleed, The Rolling Stones perfected their stage act with new guitarist Mick Taylor on Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out. By late 1970, The Rolling Stones were unquestionably the greatest rock band in the world. For their first full-length effort on the upstart Rolling Stones Records, the group decided to show just how versatile they were.
Sticky Fingers lacks the stylistic unity of their two previous studio efforts, but atones for it with what is easily their best set of songs. I could say that the album opens with their definitive (though not greatest) song in "Brown Sugar," but I would be overlooking one thing: the fact that the album actually opens with a zipper. Andy Warhol's provocative and inventive cover design, once unzipped, reveals a generous package (applaud at my double entendre). "Brown Sugar" is a caricature of all the Stones' strongest musical instincts, and I mean that in the most complimentary way. Keith Richards' go-to rhythmic shuffle is complemented by some of Mick Jagger's most tawdry lyrics to date. The song is offensive on so many levels, but the riff is so intoxicating that these issues become mere trifles before Charlie Watts even attacks his drum kit. It is followed by one of the most affecting and compelling proto-power ballads in "Sway," an easy contender for the crown of "Most Underrated Rolling Stones Track." Mick Taylor makes his presence felt in a big time way, as he churns out one of his most effective, yet understated solos during his all-too-brief tenure with the group. "Wild Horses" might be the group's best ballad, all members of the group in sync. The one curveball on Side One is the seven-minute "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," which boasts a riff nearly as incredible as "Brown Sugar," only to dissolve into a Santana-like jam that scarcely sounds like the Stones at all. This second half of the song is salvaged by the group's impeccable sense of rhythm. Side Two finds them showing off their skill at a variety of American musical forms. "Bitch" is their misogynistic Motown tribute, "I Got the Blues" the tip of the cap to Stax-Volt, and "Dead Flowers" their sincere parody of the gallows humor of AM radio country music hits. The emotional high points of the album are found in "Sister Morphine," a headachy hangover of a song that features some of Keith Richards' best lead guitar work to date. The closer, "Moonlight Mile," may be the group's pop masterpiece, though the marketplace wasn't ready for the six-minute track at the time. Paul Buckmaster's tasteful strings perfectly suit Mick Jagger's rudimentary acoustic guitar riff and rousing vocal performance. As a cycle of songs, Sticky Fingers is all over the place, and doesn't cohere as well as similar genre-jumping records like The Beatles' Revolver or The White Album. But the songs are so damn good (even the throwaway take on "You Gotta Move" has charm) that the criticism is practically pointless to make. While this is their best set of songs, their best studio album awaits in 1972's Exile in Main St.