Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 658
There are songs that are better, there are songs that are worse, there are songs that'll become your favorites and others you'll probably lift the needle for when their time is due. But in the end, Exile On Main Street … spends its four sides shading the same song in as many variations as there are Rolling Stone readymades to fill them, and if on the one hand they prove the group's eternal constancy and appeal, it's on the other that you can leave the album and still feel vaguely unsatisfied, not quite brought to the peaks that this band of bands has always held out as a special prize in the past….
The Stones have prospered by making the classic assertion whenever it was demanded of them. Coming out of Satanic Majesties Request, the unholy trio of "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Street Fighting Man" and "Sympathy For the Devil" were the blockbusters that brought them back in the running. After, through "Midnight Rambler," "Honky Tonk Women," "Brown Sugar," "Bitch" and those jagged edge opening bars of "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," they've never failed to make that affirmation of their superiority when it was most needed, of the fact that others may come and go but the Rolling Stones will always be.
This continual topping of one's self can only go on for so long, after which one must sit back and sustain what has already been built. And with Exile On Main Street, the Stones have chosen to sustain for the moment, stabilizing their pasts and presenting few directions for their future. The fact that they do it so well is testament to one of the finest bands in the world. The fact that they take a minimum of chances, even given the room of their first double album set, tends to dull that finish a bit….
The album begins with "Rocks Off," a proto-typical Stones' opener whose impact is greatest in its first 15 seconds…. [There's] nothing distinctive about the tune. Stones' openers of the past have generally served to set the mood for the mayhem to follow; this one tells you that we're in for nothing new. (p. 54)
The third side is perhaps the best organized of any on Exile…. "Let It Loose" closes out the side, and as befits the album's second claim to classic, is one beautiful song, both lyrically and melodically. (pp. 54-5)
Coming off "Let It Loose," you might expect side four to be the one to really put the album on the target. Not so.
After four sides you begin to want some conclusion to the matters at hand, to let you off the hook so you can start all over fresh. "Soul Survivor," though a pretty decent and upright song in itself, can't provide the kind of kicker that is needed at this point. It's typicality, within the oeuvre of the Rolling Stones, means it could've been placed anywhere, and with "Let It Loose" just begging to seal the bottle, there's no reason why it should be the last thing left you by the album….
Exile On Main Street appears to take up where Sticky Fingers left off, with the Stones attempting to deal with their problems and once again slightly missing the mark. They've progressed to the other side of the extreme, wiping out one set of solutions only to be confronted with another. With few exceptions, this has meant that they've stuck close to home, doing the sort of things that come naturally, not stepping out of the realm in which they feel most comfortable. Undeniably it makes for some fine music, and it surely is a good sign to see them recording so prolifically again; but I still think that the great Stones album of their mature period is yet to come. (p. 55)
Lenny Kaye, "Records: 'Exile on Main Street'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1972; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 113, July 6, 1972, pp. 54-5.