Saying that Keith Richards is in fine voice on Crosseyed Heart – his first studio album of original material in over two decades – is like saying the brutish roar of a 1966 Chevelle sounds “nice.” The vernacular is all wrong.
The craggy Rolling Stones member sings with immense soul on Crosseyed Heart, befitting the record’s equally good guitar playing. Mellifluous it is not. And don’t keep waiting for the radio friendly unit shifter. It’s not there. This isn’t that kind of record. Richards’ voice – like his songwriting – has aged, but it’s done so with surprising grace, despite all efforts to annihilate it with debauchery and nicotine. It’s blessed with balance; equal parts sex and menace and longing.
The odd thing is, there aren’t many opportunities to hear Richards sing. Combine a two-decade wait for this album and Mick Jagger’s stinginess with the mic on stage, and we hear surprisingly little from Richards. The thing is that people love to hear the man sing. Recall “You’ve Got The Silver” from the Stones’ Let It Bleed, or “Happy” from Exile on Main Street. We look forward to his singing the way people at a beach party wait for the guy with the keg to arrive.
Session drummer extraordinaire Steve Jordan not only plays on Crosseyed Heart, but he co-wrote ten of the album’s fifteen tunes, and produced. The fun these old friends have making music together is evident on every track. From the blistering “Trouble” to the reggae-tinged “Love Overdue,” the music’s looseness never gives way to sloppiness.
Things get classed up with guest spots by Norah Jones on the beautiful ballad “Illusion,” and multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, who adds gorgeous touches throughout, notably his pedal steel guitar on the laconic country ballad, “Robbed Blind.” While Richards and Jordan could have easily tricked out the album with handfuls of star-studded collaborations, they kept things sparse. Names like Waddy Wachtel and Bobby Keys might not be recognizable to the casual music fan, but they will be to anyone who has followed Richards’ solo career.
The generosity of a 15-song album might indicate that Richards is bursting at the seams with material, and perhaps got fed up waiting for Mick and company to answer his calls. But make no mistake: Crosseyed Heart is no mere appetizer to the next Rolling Stones record. It stands on its own. Like everything that Richards serves up, it’s full of uncompromising attitude and honesty.
With a new solo record on sale, and a recent Netflix documentary entitled Under the Influence getting lots of attention, this is a big year for Richards. “For me, music is the center of everything,” he says in the film. “It’s something that binds people together through centuries, through millenniums.”
The documentary, originally intended to chronicle Crosseyed Heart, ended up being a retrospective of Richards’ life and times. From early musical memories (like listening to Sarah Vaughan) to meeting Jagger when the two were teens (and bonding over Muddy Waters), the film is thorough and endearing. “I’m not getting old,” Richards says in the final scene: “I’m evolving.”
His new album says the exact same thing, but in a different vernacular.