Exile on Main Street has undergone a shift in critical perception since its 1972 release. It was initially met with lukewarm criticism that labeled the Rolling Stones as victims to stylistic indulgence. Sticking that label on Exile on Main Street today is highly anachronistic. The album’s extended jams, murkily distorted atmospheres, and stylistically eclectic tendencies contributed to a widespread misconception. Listeners simply did not know what to think of the album’s sprawling approach. Critics were quick to label Exile a disappointment, noting that after a legendary decade-long run of classic albums the Stones reign had suddenly ceased. It wasn’t the case with Exile on Main Street. Future listens and analysis showed the album got better with age, and what was initially perceived as a non-cohesive jam record steadily became heralded as one of the best rock albums ever made.
By the time Exile on Main Street was released, the Rolling Stones had not gone a single year without releasing an album that is revered as a classic today. They released quality material at a shocking rate, never undergoing a drastic stylistic transition that would make fans scratch their heads. Still, each Rolling Stones album presents differing admiration for genres, whether it was heavy on variety like Exile on Main Street or more stylistically dutiful like Sticky Fingers, which specialized in slow-burning bluesy efforts. Albums emphasizing diversity had not run rampant in the Stones’ discography prior to Exile, though their more stylistically eclectic habits would reappear on later releases, enjoyably enough but never matching the rousing genius of Exile. It was an album that signaled a looser approach to the band’s output. Even if that looseness would never match their early classics, it convinced fans that the band could mix things up enough to stay relevant for decades. It was arguably the most ideal predictor that the Rolling Stones would still be performing together when they became senior citizens. A sound initially labeled as overly muddled and scattered would later be revered as timeless.
One reason for the album’s lukewarm early reaction was the pessimistic response from frontman Mick Jagger. He called it “lousy” with “no concerted effort of intention.” Many critics lazily agreed. “At the time, [producer] Jimmy Miller was not functioning properly,” Jagger said. “I had to finish the whole record myself, because otherwise there were just these drunks and junkies.” There are several reasons Jagger was not pleased. His vocals were pushed back considerably in the album’s mix, attributed to the its sprawling jam-friendly approach. His decreased vocal presence could have been one reason, though a decrease in his overall creative input was another possibility. Drummer Charlie Watts described the album’s recording process as reflective of Richards’ flexible habits, and not Jagger’s. “A lot of Exile was done how Keith works, which is play it 20 times, marinade, play it another 20 times. He knows what he likes, but he’s very loose.” Critics later called Exile largely reflective of Richards’ songwriting and style, a laid-back bohemian outlook where quality came naturally and without duress. Jagger may have been upset that Richards was assuming lead duties, a role that Jagger had grown accustomed to.
The groundbreaking aspect of Exile on Main Street is that it’s such an apt signifier of the Rolling Stones’ durable reputation. The release allowed the band to expand their stylistic palate, and welcome up-front contributions from members not named Mick Jagger. Some key songs define the album’s especially diverse approach. The call-and-response gospel vocal layering on “Tumbling Dice” is addictive and infectious; the “you got to roll me” line echoes in listeners’ heads for what seems like eternity. “Sweet Virginia” plays with an old-timey piano progression you’d expect to hear in a dusty saloon, as spurts of brass tremble over Jagger’s weary voice. It sounds like a New Orleans jazz club met the American Frontier. Classics like “Torn and Frayed”, “Shine a Light”, and “Let It Loose” remain Stones standards, but it’s impossible to pick a specific track on Exile that defines the album. The point is, you can’t concisely describe it. That’s one of the reasons why Exile is considered one of the best rock albums of all-time. Its unpredictability was initially too daunting for listeners, but that was before it proved itself as an album that sounded eternally fresh and creatively stimulating.