On Keith Richards’ first solo album in over 20 years, “Crosseyed Heart,” the Rolling Stones co-founder crafts songs using the same tools and templates he’s employed throughout his creative life: blues, early rock ‘n’ roll, classic country & western and a pinch of reggae.
You will not find a Diplo production credit or guest verse from Chance the Rapper anywhere on this album. But as Richards’ reflexes suggest, the guitarist still possesses the skills to whittle a stick into a rock song if so inclined.
That’s a diplomatic way of saying that our hero is a creature of habit who knows what he does and doesn’t like. Recent interviews suggest he’s as dismissive of contemporary music as Frank Sinatra was to the sound of the Stones.
At the center of Richards’ work here is a philosophy that he saltily described in his autobiography, “Life.” “The thing about being a songwriter is, even if you’ve been … over, you can find consolation in writing about it, and pour it out,” he wrote. “Everything has something to do with something: nothing is divorced. It becomes an experience, a feeling, or a conglomeration of experiences.”
“Crosseyed” bears this out. Some numbers are raucous should-be Stones jams, others are sweet and lovely, still others move with a streamlined rocksteady groove. But across 13 songs (and a few choice bonus cuts), “Crosseyed Heart” rarely hits a bum note. If you’re a Rolling Stones lover, this record will keep you very, very happy.
It’s clear the guitarist has a warehouse full of experiences to draw upon here, and while his body may be torn and frayed, Richards, 71, proves that he can still turn spirit and emotion into a hell of a song.
Outside of his Stones obligations, Richards has collaborated with a few key musicians since the late 1980s, when he met drummer/multi-instrumentalist Steve Jordan during the making of a Chuck Berry tribute documentary. Along with Jordan, guitarist Waddy Wachtel (Warren Zevon, Buckingham-Nicks, “The Poseidon Adventure”) forms the core of Richards’ backing band, the X-Pensive Winos.
On “Crosseyed,” the three team with guests that include Norah Jones (on the ballad “Illusion,” which she co-wrote), two of the Neville Brothers (Aaron and Ivan), pedal-steel player Larry Campbell and vocalist Bernard Fowler. And most bittersweet, the late saxophone player and longtime Richards pal Bobby Keys blows on two songs, “Amnesia” and “Blues in the Morning.”
That Richards and his collaborators pull this off shouldn’t come as a surprise to Stones fans. After all, the Richards-sung tracks on Stones albums over the decades have proved to be among the band’s most durable. All these decades later “Before They Make Me Run,” “Happy” and “Little T&A” still sound hot.
These songs do too. The title track “Crosseyed Heart” recalls the Richards-sung Stones song “You Got the Silver,” from “Let It Bleed.” Featuring Richards and an acoustic guitar conjuring the sound of the Mississippi Delta, the song not only strikes at the depths of his influences but serves as a reminder of the key work that blues masters like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker released as older men.
On “Just a Gift,” Richards’ voice is so closely miked that you can almost smell the whiskey on his breath. He sounds ancient, especially when he tosses a touch of twang into his phrasing. When he mutters, “You give me a lift — come on surprise me,” he sounds lovely, desperate and a little creepy. “Blues in the Morning” is an apt title for a song that sounds ripped from the B-side of a 1950s Chess Records 45.
A traditionalist document that sticks to the letter of rock ‘n’ roll law as Justice Antonin Scalia sticks to the Constitution, “Crosseyed Heart” could have been issued at any time in the past four decades. It’s full of influences he’s spent his creative life exploring, and there’s nothing viral or meme-worthy about them.
That Richards keeps discovering nuance within those original texts is a testament to his seemingly infinite muse.