The Rolling Stones were coming off one of rock's greatest winning streaks when they released Goats Head Soup in 1973. Then it all started going to hell.

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Things like that happen when you declare yourself the "greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world" and start believing your myth to the point where writing actual songs and making records that live up to that myth are secondary to feeding the legend. The Stones wouldn't totally bottom out for a few more years, when Black and Blue arrived in 1976. But that decline started on Goats Head Soup.

A new box set, however, looks for some sort of redemption for the album and nearly finds it among the four discs and 35 tracks. Even the original album, in a new 2020 mix, isn't quite the letdown it sounded like when it followed up the career-peaking Exile on Main St. It's still sludgy, it still drags at points and it still occasionally comes off as lazy coasting by a band that felt it didn't have to try anymore now that it was on top of the world. But there's new sharpness to be heard now, and really, was there anywhere else to go after Exile?

Goats Head Soup's best songs - the twangy "100 Years Ago," the funky "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)," the chart-topping "Angie," the Mick Taylor-led "Winter" and the bitchy "Star Star" - are deserving additions to the Rolling Stones catalog, if not exactly the next step in their progression. The demos, instrumentals and alternate mixes of album tracks included on the Deluxe Edition are basically works in progress that add little insight to the process.

The three previously unreleased songs are better, especially the lilting "Scarlet" – recorded by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and some non-Stones after Goats Head Soup was released – and "Criss Cross," a nasty, sneering slice of Exile-style rock 'n' roll. But the big draw of the set is the two-disc live Brussels Affair, a 1973 concert from Belgium that was briefly available in 2012.

The Rolling Stones were already settled onto their thrones by this time, so it's a bit surprising to hear them sound so vital here, like they still had something to prove. Their summer 1972 tour was legendary; 1975's run was a mess (and resulted in the soggy Love You Live LP). In 1973 they could be spotty, depending where you caught them, but they were sizzling at these October dates, mostly running through material from their celebrated 1968-72 run.

On subsequent tours, they were clearly bored playing certain songs for the billionth time. And while some fatigue begins to seep into "Brown Sugar" and "Jumpin' Jack Flash" on Brussels Affair, for the most part the 15-track set captures a band that sounds both focused and scraggy throughout. A furiously ragged version of "Happy" is a highlight, but the entire show goes a long way in backing the Stones' famous boast: They really were among rock's greatest at the time.

Even Goats Head Soup has sorta reformed itself over the years. In 1973, it was an abrupt end to a streak started with 1968's Beggars Banquet; in 2020, it's one of the last Rolling Stones albums that deserves to be mentioned with the earlier classics. (It's Only Rock 'n' Roll, Some Girls and Tattoo You belong there too.) This Deluxe Edition doesn't make any excuses for the era, and it doesn't even ask for reevaluation. But it does lay itself out, flaws and all, with additional material that helps put Goats Head Soup in perspective for skeptics. By doing so, the lines between those eras are now easier to connect.

 

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