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Review: Hackney Diamonds shows time still on the side of the Rolling Stones

First collection of new music in almost 2 decades proves iconic rockers still have it
This image released by Universal Music shows cover art for “Hackney Diamonds” by The Rolling Stones. (Universal Music via AP)

Near the end of the exultant “Sweet Sounds of Heaven,” the penultimate track on The Rolling Stones’ terrific new album “Hackney Diamonds” (yes, NEW), we hear what sounds like a vocal contest between two up-and-comers: one Mick Jagger and one Lady Gaga.

“Oh yeah!” they sing, with escalating urgency. “Come on!” Are they tussling here? Actually, Jagger has confirmed there were competitive juices flowing as they completed the track.

To which we say, let the games continue! The competition is emblematic of the joyous energy that infuses the Stones’ first collection of original music in 18 years, out Friday. It’s their best new work in decades — tight, focused, full of heart and swagger.

This all feels like a rather major development for lifelong Stones fans. For so long, it seems, there’s been an unspoken contract between them and the band: You keep touring, and we will come. You’ll play the hits, maybe dust off a few surprises to keep it fresh. It’s enough, because, duh, you’re the Stones! Jagger will keep moving like, well, Jagger, technically age 80. Keith Richards, a mere 79, will stay nimble and brilliant on guitar, along with Ronnie Wood, the baby at 76. And we’ll come until you stop — which you won’t.

New music? That has not been part of the equation. (How well do you remember 2005’s “A Bigger Bang”?)

But now, on the track “Whole Wide World,” when Jagger sings, “And you think the party is over,” it feels like the whole album is one big answer: Um, nope!

And maybe, just maybe, we have a hint of possibility of shaking up the arena set list. A key candidate would be the aforementioned, gospel-tinged “Sweet Sounds of Heaven” — Exhibit A of what’s fun about the album, starting with the fact that when you’re the Stones, you can invite anybody to your party and they’ll show. Like Gaga and Stevie Wonder, who joins the track on keyboards (“Play me something, Stevie,” you’ll hear). But the song also testifies to how vigorous Jagger’s voice remains.

Another party guest: Elton John, doing piano duty on two tracks. In one, “Get Close,” Jagger croons: “I walk the city at midnight with the past strapped to my back.” (Strapped, OK, but not constricting the blood flow.) The lyrics are not always this poetic, but when they are, it’s often a dialogue with the past. As when Richards sings in “Tell Me Straight,” his poignant lead vocal outing: “Is my future all in the past? Just tell me straight.”

In the furious “Bite My Head Off,” the band’s guest is none other than their old friend Paul McCartney — yeah, the same guy who called them a “blues cover band” recently, amusing and perhaps annoying them. Here he is, just a Beatle on bass. No biggie.

The late, great Charlie Watts, who died in 2021, appears posthumously on two of the 12 tracks. On one, “Live by the Sword,” former bandmate Bill Wyman joins on bass, making for an emotionally potent reunion. Steve Jordan, the successor Watts chose, takes the beloved drummer’s place on the rest of the album. Most tracks are penned by Jagger and Richards; they’re joined on three by pop producer Andrew Watt (known for work with Post Malone and Justin Bieber ), who clearly exhibits a golden touch with this whole project.

Is this the last new album? Likely not. But if it were, the final words would be “rolling stone,” via a poignant Muddy Waters cover, reminding us of the blues albums Mick was carrying that fateful day he connected with Keith at a train station.

“She said ‘I got a boy child coming … he’s gonna be a rolling stone,’” the last line goes.

You think the party’s over? Ha.

READ ALSO: Rolling Stones set to drop Hackney Diamonds, first new music in years