In 'Wandering Spirit,' a towering Jagger atop an early Stones foundation


Remember the old Stones song "No Expectations"? That's basically the way most critics feel about the prospect of a new album from Mick Jagger. Sure, he's rock titan, but he's also made some stunningly mediocre albums lately -- both on his own and with the Stones.

Maybe that's why Jagger's latest effort, "Wandering Spirit" (Atlantic 82436), seems such a dazzler. It isn't just that it's better than any of us expected, full of soulful ballads, quiet country tunes and rock-solid ravers; it's that none of us really expected it to be any good at all. And in defying those odds, Jagger has brought something to his music that hasn't been there in years: genuine excitement.

Granted, this might seem a bit hard to swallow at first, particularly if all you know of the album is the current single, "Sweet Thing." A falsetto funk song in the vein of "Miss You" and "Emotional Rescue," it's packed with sort of the grunting R&B; mannerisms Jagger makes sure to slip into all his overtly commercial efforts. And though that makes for a fairly decent radio record (if that's not an oxymoron), it's a tad too pro forma to get the average Stones fan's heart thumping.

But as it turns out, "Sweet Thing" is more the exception than the rule here. In fact, the only other song on the album that sounds even remotely like it is "Use Me," a more-or-less pointless duet with Lenny Kravitz that finds the two of them working the groove like a couple of preening roosters.

Far more typical of what Jagger achieves here is "Think," on which Jagger and his band do to the James Brown original what the early Stones did with Chicago blues -- speed it up and make it harder. And while the result would never be mistaken for real R&B;, it fits Jagger's purposes perfectly, providing the ideal context for his gasps and growls.

Nor is that the only instance where he and producer Rick Rubin evoke the sound and chemistry of Jagger's other band. You can hear bits of it in "Put Me in the Trash," a swaggering rock workout highlighted by Jimmy Rip's lean, bluesy guitar break, and in the way Jagger plays the Slim Harpo-style blues of the title tune.

But Jagger and company also manage to move beyond that Stones-style approach, and that, ultimately, is what makes this album work. Because as good as it is to hear Jagger getting back to the stuff that originally earned him his reputation, it's equally nice to know that he's not mired there.

Maybe that's why some of the album's most interesting moments come when Jagger offers a different twist to the sort of thing he's always done. Because whether it's a matter of reshaping the old-style phrasing of an Appalachian ballad like "Handsome Molly," slipping a bit of rock and roll into the gospel groove of "Out of Focus" or adding a touch of Jaggeresque jauntiness to the Frederick Knight oldie "I've Been Lonely for So Long," the singer is always working from strength.

And how long has it been since we've heard him do that?

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