To me “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is one of the best songs of all time (in my top 10 songs) and one of the most positively emotionally resonant rock songs ever made. In fact in my opinion this song approaches a spiritual and religious experience that no other song I’ve heard in rock music has ever captured.
I know people may baulk with the idea of The Rolling Stones writing “spiritual” and “emotionally resonant” songs during this period and there are people who even believe “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” to be a pessimistic song reflecting the end of the idealism of flower power at the end of the 60’s. So I have to give some context why I feel that way about this song.
I'll mention that although I'm not a Buddhist, I do come from a family with a Buddhist background. One of the key tenants of that religion is the idea that happiness can't be fulfilled by external forces and the environment as it is out of your control. The idea is that our desires or “attachment” is the root cause of unhappiness. People desires and want can never be fully satisfied and the only way to reach happiness is by accepting that "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and that you’ll have to be happy despite whatever you face in life. For someone to be truly happy, there happiness has to be unconditional. As long as you put conditions to your happiness then the person is destined to be unhappy and dissatisfied with life. Whether Jagger/Richards intended it or not, I believe this song captures that message perfectly. Who knows maybe they did intend it considering that The Rolling Stones did experiment with eastern philosophy when it was in vogue in the 60’s.
So after the choir intro (that I always felt a bit tacked on), the song starts off with just plain acoustic guitar strumming with Jagger painting a bleak picture of a women drinking her sorrows with wine about her relationship with a man who display no commitment or responsibilities. Then Jagger starts singing in a mournful way "You can't always get what you want" however the organ appears with some chords and there is this gorgeous descending and ascending piano line (one of the best keyboard moment in rock music IMO). To me that combination of the piano and organ signifies a religious epiphany where the protagonist discovered “the truth" and he sings “But if you try sometime you find” and then the female gospel singer joins in and sings “You get what you need" which explodes into music that is filled with joy. You see the protagonist realized the basic truth “that you get what you need” (which is happiness) when you accept that “you can't get what you want” and the song explodes into one of the most joyful and soulful music you can ever hear signifying the wave of happiness out of discovering that “truth”.
Also notice that throughout the following verses, the music still remain joyful despite the lyrics about the various disappointments various characters experience in life which signifies that the person is remaining happy despite the troubles in life. Also notice how the chorus throughout the song differs to the chorus at the beginning as the first chorus sounds sad and desperate with the sparse arrangement and the absence of the female backing vocalist until the “epiphany” but in later chorus the female backing vocalist sings at the beginning of the chorus signifying that the character of the song is embracing the joyfulness of not getting what he wants.
For a person who is raised in a Buddhist family but grew up in a Western culture, this song resonated with me especially as it is in my opinion a perfect synthesis of Buddhist philosophy with Western music. Gospel music is a western music that is associated with spiritual joy with Christianity and it is an ingenious arrangement choice to mesh that spiritual joy with the line that is superficially pessimistic “You can’t always get what you want” to bring out the message that spiritual joy is derived by realizing that message. The female gospel backing vocalist that jumped in throughout the song did the perfect job in delivering that message. This song is a perfect example of how the arrangement can be used to craft the message of the song