Following a gap of 23 years, Keith Richards has now released his third solo album Crosseyed Heart, decidedly his most accomplished to date. Of course Richards’s songwriting partnership with Mick Jagger has always been at the heart of The Rolling Stones’ success but, just as Jagger’s go-alone efforts to make himself a pop star ended in disappointment, Richards’s more rootsy, less commercial, solo work, while authentic, has also failed to give satisfaction in the past. It seemed that whatever their disagreements, the Glimmer Twins needed each other to bring out the best of themselves as musicians. This time, though, the result is much more convincing.
In fact, though this is very much Richards’s own personal album, it’s also a collaboration as he has always been a team player rather than a prima donna. Like his first two albums, Crosseyed Heart has been made with his supporting band X-Pensive Winos, and is co-written and co-produced with the drummer Steve Jordan. It also features the late, great saxophonist Bobby Keys (who first recorded with the Stones on Let It Bleed in 1967) on a couple of tracks. Waddy Wachtel now plays lead guitar, presumably so Richards could concentrate on his singing (as well as playing guitar, bass and piano). It seems to have paid off.
Though Richards has been singing a song on each of the Stones albums since the late ’60s, it has always felt like an indulgence. His limited vocal range, much deeper in recent years, has fallen well short of his distinctive guitar-playing style as the ‘Human Riff’. But now he has learned how to use his nicotine-stained, Jack Daniels-soaked voice so that it is less likely to crack under the strain. At times it’s a bit like the husky, half-singing half-talking style of late Leonard Cohen, expressing a ‘lived-in’ character.
Almost an hour long and boasting 15 tracks, Crosseyed Heart demonstrates most of the musical influences that have shaped Richards’s career. It has a satisfyingly gritty texture, more stripped back than a Stones album, and reveals a surprising amount of vulnerable feeling underneath the gunslinger swagger.
The opening title track takes Richards back to his roots, like a country blues by Robert Johnson on acoustic guitar, as he ponders a girlfriend dilemma: “I love my sugar / But I love my honey too.” Upping the pace with a crisp back beat, Heartstopper is about a fiery, jealous relationship that thrives on physical passion: “When she holds me / I don’t feel no pain.” The The off-kilter Amnesia presumably reflects his temporary loss of memory after he fell out of a tree in 2006: “Knocked on my head / Everything went blank / I didn’t even know the Titanic sank.”
Robbed Blind is a country ballad featuring pedal steel guitar in which Richards’s outlaw persona has had his ‘stash’ stolen but wants to stay away from the authorities: “The cops, I can’t involve them, / God knows what they could find.” The lead single Trouble is a rough-edged bluesy garage rocker, while his love of reggae is shown in his cover of the Gregory Isaacs song Love Overdue.
The mid-tempo Nothing On Me references his many well-documented drug arrests in the past as he sings defiantly: ‘They laid it on thick / They couldn’t make it stick.’ As its name suggests, Blues In The Morning is a blues number, with some rock ’n’ roll struggling to get out. In the soulful ballad duet Illusion Richards’s growling is pleasingly counterpointed by co-writer Norah Jones’s sultry tones. And he gives his own idiosyncratic account of the folk standard Goodnight, Irene, which was first recorded by one of his heroes, Lead Belly.
After more than 50 years as an essential member of the Stones, 71-year-old Richards finally seems to have matured his own individual musical identity. However, the Stones apparently plan to record another album next year, their first since 2005, so it will be back to business with the old firm then.