KEITH RICHARDS’ FIRST studio album under his own name in 23 years begins with The Rolling Stones’ guitarist in a rare, truly solo setting: plucking tart, acoustic licks and confessing his lowdown ways in a stark croon. Crosseyed Heart is only a fragment of song.
“That’s all I’ve got,” Richards cracks as the track suddenly jumps into the more familiar, electric churn of Heartstopper. But it is a compelling entrance: the Pirate in winter, finally acting his age with the weathered authority of the ghosts – Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Mississippi Fred McDowell – who still haunt Richards’s life and band, as guardians and challenge.
The rest of Crosseyed Heart is a sharply tailored zigzag-with-sting through Richards’ patented specialities in and out of the Stones: mid-tempo swagger propelled by irregular coarse-treble guitar riffs and the creaky, rugged comfort of his country-saloon ballads.
The supporting cast brings proven empathy on both counts. Richards has reunited his late-’80s side band the X-Pensive Winos – drummer and co-writer Steve Jordan, guitarist Waddy Wachtel, keyboard player Ivan Neville – while calling on friends like Norah Jones, who duets with Richards on Illusion, and Neville’s father Aaron, the brief, wounded-angel voice atop the slinky, Memphis R&B of Nothing On Me. In a nice memorial touch, the late saxophonist Bobby Keys appears on two tracks, including the Happy-like clatter of Blues In The Morning.
There is reflection here too – an acute self-examination that has never come easily to the Stones but runs through these songs like a barbed spine that cuts both ways.
“At 71, Richards still plays rock’s Public Enemy Number One with conviction.”
“They laid it on thick/They couldn’t make it stick,” he sings in Nothing On Me, his cocky subterranean snarl ringed with the vintage Hi Records organ of Charles Hodges. But Richards also concedes that time, at last, is not on his side. Amnesia is a Some Girls-like strut mined with advancing frailty – the very real and common fear of mind and memories slipping away. And the high price of the outlaw life is plain in a lavish-ital cover of Gregory Isaacs’ Love Overdue, delivered by Richards with striking, autumnal clarity – much like that summoned by Bob Dylan for his long look back, via Frank Sinatra’s songbook, on Shadows In The Night.
It is a fundamental truth of Stones solo albums: Mick Jagger goes to great lengths to avoid comparisons to his day job; Richards doesn’t care to sound like anything else. But on Crosseyed Heart, the guitarist has made the best and most honest of his outside raids, freshening his classicism with a hard stare at payback and mortality – an admission that nothing lasts forever from a man who refuses to go quietly.
Read Waddy Wachtel’s guide to The Tao Of Keith Richards, check out Keef’s Greatest Clips, or purchase one of a limited number of copies of MOJO featuring our world exclusive interview with the Rolling Stone online now.
Plus listen to Keef’s solo music, including Crosseyed Heart from September 18, 2015, via Apple Music.