Mick Jagger's Wandering Spirit

February 07, 1993|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Rock stardom may not offer much in the way of rules of conduct, but there are some things we just don't expect our pop idols to do. We don't, for example, expect to see them hanging out with anything less than glamorous young supermodels. Nor do we expect them to set up their amps or tune their guitars; that's what the roadies do. And when it comes time to do phone interviews, we definitely don't expect them to do the dialing themselves.

So when the phone rang at the appointed hour one afternoon in January, what I expected was some handler telling me to "hold please, for Mr. Jagger." Instead, what I heard was a surprisingly friendly and shockingly familiar voice saying, "Hi, it's Mick Jagger here."

"Here" for Jagger is his house in the West Indies (where would you expect a rock star to have his winter home? Brooklyn?). "I'm going to go back to London in a weekend," he adds, as if there were a chance I'd run into him on the plane, "but I'm in the West Indies now."

Not that he called to offer a travel update. No, what brings Jagger to the phone is "Wandering Spirit," his third and latest solo album. Admittedly, it's unusual to find a star of his stature spending time on phone interviews; normally, they speak only to MTV, Rolling Stone, and a handful of national magazines.

But Jagger's solo career, frankly, hasn't been all that exceptional. Although his first album, "She's the Boss," sold decently, his second effort, "Primitive Cool," failed even to crack the Billboard Top 40. And no wonder. Neither album sounded much like the sort of thing Jagger does with the Stones, tending instead toward high-concept dance grooves and arty experimentation.

"Wandering Spirit," on the other hand, finds the singer working with material much closer to his musical roots. It's not strictly a Stones-style album, but it's close enough that even Jagger finds it difficult to pinpoint why.

"The record has some tracks that sound a bit like the Stones," he allows. "I don't think they all do; only maybe two or three, you could say, are a bit Stones-y. It's just different played than the previous solo albums I've done. I don't really think it's Stones-y, but I wouldn't want to describe it, either. It's difficult."

There are some songs, of course, that strike him as being utterly unlike what he'd do with the Stones -- even if the distinction would be lost on most listeners. For instance, there's "Evening Gown," a country number that, to the casual fan, would seem totally of a piece with Stones songs like "No Expectations" or "Sweet Virginia."

Jagger, however, doesn't hear it that way. "It's a bit tighter than I play with the Stones," he says. "I wanted to play it a bit straighter, you know? The country songs I've done with the Stones have been really loose, because they've been played maybe almost on a one- or two-time basis -- very quickly done, the country songs. Which is a good thing, as long as they come off that way. But I haven't done any country songs for a long while."

Why did he decide to do a country song now? Jagger seems to credit the decision to his producer, Rick Rubin. True, Rubin's track record, which includes production for such non-country acts as L. L. Cool J, Slayer and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, makes him an unlikely source for such inspiration, but Jagger says that content matters far more to Rubin than style.

"He's very strong on material, Rick," says the singer. "I mean, he knows what he likes, let's put it like that. Which is good. Because if you write songs -- and I've been writing songs for a long time -- you always think you know best. You can write 30 songs, and do the 10 wrong ones [because] you tend to think they're all wonderful.

Producer's role

"Songs -- that's the basic raw material. So that's a very important role for the producer, to choose songs and work them out, and then be prepared to throw them out if they're no good."

Fortunately for him, Jagger didn't have to toss away too many finished tracks. "We took away before we recorded," he explains. "We'd get halfway through recording a song, and say, 'This is not going to work.' So we didn't finish it. But we did a lot of the editing before, which is better, really."

Unsurprisingly, Jagger believes strongly in the virtues of pre-production and rehearsal. "Especially if you're working with musicians you don't really know so well," he says. But he tries not to overdo it. "Otherwise it sounds a little too pat and professional, you know? You get really super players, and they come in and do a great job. And then at the end of it, you go, 'Well, I don't know what's wrong with it, but I don't really like it.' "

A sense of excitement

Not to worry -- nothing on "Wandering Spirit" comes across as being too pat or professional. If anything, the best moments manage to convey a sense of excitement and experimentation.

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