I wasn’t sure what to expect from a Keith Richards album in 2015. I’m a huge fan of his first solo album, 1988’s Talk is Cheap, but he had something to prove on that one after Jagger put the Stones on hold to pursue his own solo career. His passion and songwriting prowess shine on that album, as he and his band the X-Pensive Winos rip through blues rockers and brassy ballads with aplomb. His last solo joint, 1992’s Main Offender, has its high points but felt more like making an album just to make an album.
Keith seems to have a knack for putting out an album at the right moment in his career. When Talk is Cheap came out, he was showing people that there was more than Jagger to the sonic palette of the Stones. That album is better than Mick’s solo work because Jagger was trying (and failing) to stay relevant with the sound of the times. Meanwhile, Keith uncorked music akin to the backbone of the Stones: rhythmic grooves and soul.
The Keith Richards of 2015 isn’t exactly a parody or joke, but he’s an internet meme for life longevity and known as the dude Johnny Depp based Jack Sparrow off of. People forget or don’t know that he was the driving force behind “Satisfaction,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Wild Horses” and “Beast of Burden,” some of the best songs ever.
That’s why Crosseyed Heart is so fulfilling. It’s the sound of a master of his craft having fun making the music he’s been playing for over 50 years. It’s not an eye-opener, nor is it revelatory in any way. It’s straightforward roots music from the most imitated guitarist in the popular era.
Keith knows how to create a vibe, a pulsating, rhythmic groove and go with it. “Trouble” is a riff-rocker akin to his ’68-72 heyday. The piano, horn and swaggering lead guitar lines make “Blues in the Morning” a memorable romper. “Substantial Damage” is an uptempo cut that, with a harder drum line from Charlie Watts and some vocals from Mick, would be one of the best Stones songs of the past few decades.
As a singer, he generally works well within the parameters of his vocal limitations. He can get a little strained on rockers, but those songs are more about what he would refer to as “that feel” – dance-worthy grooves to jiggle your hips to.
Where he really shines is as a singer is on the ballads. His aged, boozy, drugged-out voice just sounds right on them. “Robbed Blind” is probably the best country ballad recorded about someone stealing your reefer, money and girl. The mid-tempo soul grind of “Nothing On Me” is outstanding and after three full album spins, is the one song I keep going back to.
The album’s ragged, yet precisely played, charms are considerable. The vibe is laid-back without jammy, rocks without being a carbon copy of beloved tunes from his halcyon days. If this is the material Keith’s been working on in the ten years since the Stones’ A Bigger Bang, it bodes well for the band’s alleged new album being recorded next year.
Listen to if: You like Chess Records-era blues rock, barroom ballads, and crunchy guitar riffs
Don’t listen to if: You take a piss break during Keith’s two songs during a Stones show, skip over his tracks on studio albums, or hate songs that give riding a groove over lyrical and musical complexity