Few, if any, artists can lay claim to the level of brilliance that the Rolling Stones were working on between 1968 and 1972. That isn’t to say that the Stones weren’t great before then, but that period saw the band evolve from a dynamic singles act with occasional pretensions of being grander to becoming a truly essential artistic entity, one that pushed the boundaries of what rock music could be. That this was going on as the Stones themselves were fraying is only more impressive; this period coincided with founding member Brian Jones descending further into addiction, leading to his eventual demise. Jones’ death coincided somewhat with the release of Let It Bleed, an album thematically tinged with tragedy and rebirth. Both a celebration and a requiem, the Stones wrote Let It Bleed not just for their fallen friend but for the feelings of idealism that were fading away as the 1960s drew to a close.

Elements of Let It Bleed are somewhat difficult to parse without understanding the musical environment of the late ‘60s. At certain points, the band quite clearly dip their toes in the sort back-to-basics blues and folk that was the flavor at the time, from the explosion of electric blues in the UK to the resurgence of traditional folk and country in the US. This isn’t to call the Stones bandwagoners or trend-followers, though; one must remember their beginnings as a blues/R&B band, and their return to their roots had already kind of commenced with Beggars Banquet the previous year. Let It Bleed continues in that vein, but the arrangements are fuller and more complex as the band filled out their sound to compensate for having only one guitarist for much of the sessions. More than simply blues, though, Let It Bleed centers itself around American roots music. The band’s take on Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” is closer in spirit to classic blues than the maximalist power trios of the era, and they successfully present an actual honky-tonk rendition of “Honky Tonk Women.” There’s a sense of playfulness to the Stones at times; one gets the sense that returning to making the kind of music they played at their beginning helped to revive the Stones as a functioning band, and it imbues Let It Bleed with a sense of verve and creative energy.

Having said that, the album doesn’t arrive at this groove immediately. A sense of dread lurks in the background, and the return to roots music serves thematically as both an attempt to stave off the approaching darkness and an acknowledgement that the idealized future promised in psychedelia may not actually be coming. “Gimme Shelter” mirrors Banquet’s “Sympathy for the Devil” in how they each begin the album with horror, but where “Devil” finds Jagger gleefully taking part in the destruction, he sings “Shelter” with a palpable sense of fear. Rockers such as “Monkey Man” are excitable but also manic, filled to the brim with nervous energy. Elsewhere, Jagger’s lyrics are desperate on the title track and “Midnight Rambler,” and Richards’ first vocal turn on “You Got the Silver” is just as pleading. It’s only at the very end that any hope shines through on the monumental, bittersweet pseudo-gospel number “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Widely regarded for good reason as one of the Stones’ best songs, decades of overplaying in films and commercials still have not robbed the song of its power. It still has the power to give goosebumps as it builds from its somber intro to its massive climax.

Fifty years after its release, Let It Bleed is every bit the masterpiece that it was regarded as upon its release. While many of its songs are embedded in the cultural subconscious to the point of exhaustion, they are still powerful within the context of the album. Time has only really been kinder to the album; even as the Stones themselves slowly faded from relevance, the impact of their work at their peak can still be felt deep. Bar none, Let It Bleed is one of the greatest albums in rock history and a testament to what the Rolling Stones were capable of, even as they were coming apart at the seams.

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