Rolling Stones – Undercover Rolling Stones Records 90120-1 (1983)
The Stones’ first studio album after the surprisingly excellent Tattoo You comes across as one of the last times they were writing stuff that they seemed genuinely interested in, however odd that stuff may be. Richards’ guitar draws on Chuck Berry influences. Jagger’s lyrics are at their seediest. The title track opener is pretty strong, sounding of the time and of a piece with the band’s history without succumbing to pointless studio fads and without becoming mired in nostalgia. No, there aren’t any canonized hits here. But the album as a whole avoids any major missteps and is listenable top to bottom. While a step down from Tattoo You, this is still a middle-tier Stones full-length—better than truly bottom-tier albums like Goats Head Soup and much of what came later in the 80s, 90s, and beyond.
The band was clearly losing touch with ordinary folks but here that very fact comes through, which makes that trend less jarring than in the coming years. “Too Much Blood” finds Jagger writing about a murder and decapitation and also how he doesn’t like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But it’s like the way people “reply all” to email flame wars to ask others not to reply all, or that old saying about how the censor shouts aloud what he seeks to suppress…it is self-defeating and contradictory to write and record a song about there being too much glorification of violence while at the same time doing it too!
There are backing horns in places. Sometimes it comes across like conventional rock saxophone. But at times (the end of “Too Much Blood”), somewhat down in the mix, you can hear wailing free-jazz style sax and that is intriguing. There is also another attempt to fuse blues rock with dub reggae (“Feel on Baby”), which seem like absorbing fads in the absence of anything of their own to offer, but it is inoffensive.
“Too Tough” is a flawed but still worthwhile song. The melody is catchy enough. The lyrics, though, are not all the way there. They range from nuggets of hard-bitten wisdom to stuff that is just skeezy. With some lyrical revisions it might have been a top-shelf Stones song.