The rollout for Crosseyed Heart has played like several episodes of Keith Says the Darndest Things. For those who haven’t been tuning in at home, here are the highlights from the last few weeks: Sgt. Pepper’s is a “mishmash of rubbish,” Metallica and Black Sabbath are jokes, the Grateful Dead are boring, rap is music for the tone-deaf, Donald Trump is “refreshing,” and T-Swift, well, Richards managed to speak volumes about her by declining to comment at all (“Oh, I don’t want to sound like an old man”). If this was anyone but Keith Richards, publicists would be going into DEFCON 1 damage-control mode or looking for ledges to leap from. Because it’s Richards, they shrug and say, “That’s just Keith being Keith.”
Keith has been “being Keith” for so long now that sometimes we allow ourselves to forget this is the same guitarist who fell asleep in a hotel one night while recording and woke up to find, alongside snoring, a rough version of the riff to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, a guitar part as hallowed as any in the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon. It’s easy, and admittedly entertaining, to indulge the pop culture tendency that often reduces Richards to the inspiration for Jack Sparrow or a series of Chuck Norris-type badass jokes. After all, who doesn’t laugh when Wayne’s World 2 roadie Del Preston postulates that sleeping upside down “may be the reason why Keith cannot be killed by conventional weapons”? But when the microphones finally disperse and the jokes subside, we’re left with recordings that we can’t help but take seriously. That’s where we separate the myth from the musician, and Crosseyed Heart finds Richards’ sights still focused and fixed dead ahead after all these years.
“That’s all I got,” mutters Richards, abruptly cutting off the opening acoustic-plucked title track less than two minutes in. It’s as if he’s anticipating the skepticism some listeners might be harboring. After all, Richards is 71 years old and more than two decades removed from Main Offender, his last solo album. But just as that element of doubt hangs for a moment and listeners are left to ponder how a spent man will fill another 14 tracks, Steve Jordan primes his drum kit and “Heartstopper” comes barreling in. Any doubt vanishes in that instant. Richards growls and lets his guitar co-mingle with Jordan’s drums and plinking keys, harmonizing on the “but when she holds me” line that tethers together both the song’s pieces and the oil-and-water couple Richards sings about.
Richards’ solo career has never been about seeking the spotlight. When he occasionally broke from the Stones over the years, the decision was always about finding a garage band rooted in his steadfast blues sensibilities while Jagger chased trends. Crosseyed Heart features Richards once again backed by Jordan, who co-wrote the album, and other members of X-Pensive Winos, including vocalist Sarah Dash and guitarist Waddy Wachtel. With the Winos behind him, Richards has the confidence and talent to serve up another convincing sampler of any genre he chooses: horn-bolstered, she-left-me reggae (“Love Overdue”); pedal steel-accented, done-me-wrong country (“Robbed Blind”); and guitar-driven garage blues (“Blues in the Morning”) that threatens to blow the doors off that garage like a meth lab explosion.
Lead single and album highlight “Trouble” shows the longtime poster boy for “excess” exhibiting his knack for un-rock-godly restraint. Not many guitarists would compose such an economical, locked-in couplet-to-chorus full-throttler, with guitar interludes acting more as verses than opportunities to bedazzle. But Richards remains a guitar hero who forgoes heroics for workmanlike weaving and interplay, always serving the song first and the ego a distant second. Vocally, Richards clearly feels comfortable in his limited range, but he also knows when to share the mic. “Something for Nothing” blossoms out of soulful backing refrains, and Richards memorably swaps verses and lines and eventually harmonizes with Norah Jones, whose smoky vocals match the vibe of their co-written duet, “Illusion”.
Like previous Richards solo albums, Crosseyed Heart has its limitations and shortcomings. Some ideas get recycled throughout the record, and there’s a tighter 10-track LP in there if listeners care to edit for themselves. Still, a little repetition or bloating is quickly forgiven considering we’ve gotten three solo records in 30 years from Richards, and most of Crosseyed Heart reminds us of why we love him in the first place. The album’s second cover, Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene”, would have been a fitting closer, a goodbye via the blues so many of his classics are rooted in. But Richards doesn’t appear quite ready to say goodnight yet. There’s still some Keith being Keith left to do.
Essential Tracks: “Trouble”, “Something for Nothing”, and “Robbed Blind”