While the sprawl of Exile on Main Street has a special place in my musical pantheon, Let It Bleed is the better album. It chronicles the Stones in all their mixed up glory with defiant rock and roll, tributes to the classic blues, and sloppy country love. There's a sense of where the Rolling Stones came from as well as where they were heading.
But the power of Let It Bleed lies in the perfect bookend tracks opening and closing the album. Gimme Shelter captures the darkness of its times while You Can't Always Get What You Want offers a more uplifting (albeit pragmatic) message. 1969 was a mixed up time and the album confronts that head on.
The opening percussive guitar on Gimme Shelter sets up a sense of unreality as it fades in. The slinky percussion and the interplay between the two guitars hints at trouble. Mick immediately gets real:
Ooh a storm is threatenin'Offering no comfort of denial, the song becomes more insistent. Mick's snippets of distorted harmonica are like heat driven mirages. Keith's solo syncopates against the rhythm guitar and bass, almost strutting his surrender to the thundering darkness. The raw power of Merry Clayton's voice transcends mere backing vocals, forcing the song into a duet with Jagger. The fade down into the rooted blues of Robert Johnson's Love In Vain provides a pause to carry on with the album.
My very life today
If I don't get some shelter
Ooh, yeah, I'm gonna fade away
By contrast, You Can't Always Get What You Want is a study in simplicity that even overcomes the overproduction inclusion of the London Bach Choir. The unadorned guitar and French horn set a pastoral calm. Mick's rueful vocals acknowledge that things don't always work out, but the first chorus kicks off a party jam mood. That transition turns the song into a slightly defiant celebration of settling. This is the perfect bridge between the '60s and what the '70s would become. It's accepted that You Can't Always Get What You Want is the Stones answer to the Beatles' Hey Jude, with building repetition and the orchestral touches with the choir. Maybe so, but the Beatles turned inward while Mick and the boys seemed more engaged in the world (and more approachable).
"It's Only Rock and Roll", but that's exactly what lies at the heart of the Rolling Stones and Let It Bleed. The music is deceptively simple. The Stones share the same solid beats that their contemporary British blues players had. But when Keith Richards lays down his open tuned, pedal tone riffs against that rhythm, it becomes more visceral and ballsy. Listen to his fills on Monkey Man or the bluesy mix of rhythm and fill on Live With Me. While Richards' style builds on Chuck Berry's foundation, he has a more instinctive sense of the groove.