The song begins to play its games and do its dances with the chorus— “it’s just that demon life that’s got you in its sway.” This line has its cryptic elements— “demon life” could signify fast-living youth (promiscuity, drugs), celebrity (the Stones were well-established as celebrities by this point) or even riding along some spiritual edge attendant on these states. Whatever it is, the speaker of the chorus (whose identity remains unclear) presents himself as a survivor, someone whose illusions have already been broken. It could be that the demon life does mostly consist of maintaining these illusions— and that once the illusions have some sway over you, the possibility of nightmare expands. But it is revealing that the speaker of the chorus takes pains to minimize this syndrome; it is “just,” or merely, this demon life, which suggests both that the syndrome is known and that it will pass, after the initial alienation wears off. However, the pronoun games the lyrics play suggest that the person who speaks the first chorus also narrates the second verse, which takes us deeper into nightmare territory— “ain’t flinging tears out on the dusty ground/ for my friends out on the burial ground/ can’t stand the feeling getting so brought down.” Mick Jagger, who composed these lyrics, has publicly attested how violent the 60s seemed to him. Though the 60s are not often thought of as a charnel ground, this may be how Jagger perceived them. The first verse demonstrates the atrophy of 60s mysticism; the second demonstrates how this atrophy can be emotionally damaging. This character is devastated but cannot cry; surrounded by intimations of mortality he cannot accept. The Stones had personally suffered a devastating loss; Brian Jones, who founded and established the band, died in 1969. The fact that the circumstances around Jones’s death remained (and still remain) mysterious heightened and consolidated the Stones’ aura of transgression and danger. But both of the first two verses feature characters that have not come to grips with loss; characters for whom, one may interpret, the 60s cast a large, confusing shadow over the 70s. The bridge, which brings love into the picture, seems like a red herring. The third verse offers a sense of genuine human consolation, extremely rare for the Stones— “one day I woke up to find/ right in the bed next to mine/ someone who broke me up with a corner of her smile.”
If “Sway” is generally about awakenings, this final awakening suggests that the two characters can begin to heal each other’s disappointment and disillusionment. They are both under the sway of what Jagger calls a demon life; that a slight smile can be significant on both sides suggests frailty and vulnerability, but also emotional aliveness. The landscape of “Sway” then coalesces into a kind of balance. That the bed is not “his” but “next to his” even adds a significant detail— that the situation may be transpiring in a hotel room. If it is, and if both characters share the same malaise, the transience of this encounter gives it a sense of shock and purpose. It has the reciprocity of real dialogues, a quality missing from most of the Stones’ great songs, most of which represent moody outlaws. As such, this may be the most intimate song the Stones ever recorded— “Wild Horses,” from the same album, falls too much into narrative incoherence. Intimacy is associated with brokenness; first the initial character (the context suggests it is a woman) having her mind broken by changing circumstances; then her own smile breaking up, as in softening and moving, her companion. The 70s did break from the 60s, but in such a way that the sexual dynamics of free love were reinforced; sexual promiscuity remained rampant. The “Sway” lyrics are not overt in addressing what could be a sexual facet to this relationship; what is overt is that little encounters (whether in hotel rooms or elsewhere) could be windows opened onto real, tender human connections. Jagger’s lyrics have never been known for their tenderness; even Stones’ ballads like “Lady Jane” and “Back Street Girl” have a sinister subtext. What makes “Sway” remarkable is not only that it is anomalous in the Stones’ catalogue; there is probably no other rock song that documents so movingly the end of an era, and the collapse of generational innocence (John Lennon’s “God” attempts the same thing, but with a more heavy-handed, arguably excessively blatant, approach).
The next thing the Stones’ released, 1972’s Exile on Main Street, extends both the nightmarish dissolution and the tenderness of “Sway.” Exile is generally considered among rock critics to be the Stones’ masterpiece; however, I would argue that, song for song, Sticky Fingers actually beats Exile. Jagger has a habit of swallowing his lyrics; on “Sway,” most of them are at least decipherable, on Exile only phrases jump out. It is also worth noting that “Sway” comes off as good, solid rock and roll, no more and no less. It isn’t presented as a ballad or a rabble-rouser. Other than Jagger’s lyrics, the most noticeable element is Mick Taylor’s gorgeous lead guitar work. He makes the best of the two lead breaks he is given; his vibrato has the sting of Clapton’s and Hendrix’s, but there is an understated fluency to Taylor’s playing that takes the song to a new level. “Sway” is placed between two Stones’ standards, “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses,” and manages to best them between these elements. In their prime, the Stones had a way of loading on album tracks that were as strong (or stronger) than their singles. While I would have to rate “Sway” as the Stones greatest album track, “Live with Me,” “Monkey Man,” “Stray Cat Blues,” and the handful of great Exile tracks would be strong contenders. The Stones best work is bleak, and paints a picture of a fractured world. “Sway” is one of the few moments in which the possibility of healing is addressed. Because consolation other than sex is rare to find not only in the Stones’ songbook but in rock generally, this is an oasis of humanity in a desert of greed, lust, anger, and strife.