In the recent documentary Keith Richards: Under the Influence, the grizzled guitarist and best-selling memoirist recalls a long-ago party at Muddy Waters’ Chicago home. Standing in front of the house decades later, he says he “crashed out” and can’t remember leaving the “rocking” bash. But he does remember that he “woke up at Howlin’ Wolf’s house.”
It’s a great story, both self-mocking and a bit self-aggrandizing (I got to hang with Muddy and Wolf). But Richards’ fond but fuzzy recollection of his wild night and morning-after with two legendary bluesmen has a metaphoric ring that makes it more than a septuagenarian rocker’s nostalgia. Just a few years before that party, Wolf’s – and Muddy’s – blues woke up teenage Keef and a postwar generation of youths like him to sounds far more vital, sexual, and exciting than the anemic British pop of the late-’50s and early-’60s.
Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones were apt pupils not only of Waters and Wolf; they also studied Jimmy Reed, Slim Harpo, Elmore James, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Solomon Burke, and a few other blues and R&B greats. But although the Stones began as a blues band, not all their influences were black. Richards dug Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Everly Brothers, too. His ears were wide open to American roots music regardless of genre, and it all wound up in some form in the music the Stones have made for more than a half-century.
Those influences, plus some reggae and American folk music, are all over Crosseyed Heart, Richards’ first album since Main Offender, from 1992, and the best of the three he has released since Talk is Cheap in 1988. Unlike its predecessors, the new album wasn’t inspired by rage at Mick Jagger or by a need to keep busy during one of the Stones’ hiatuses. Steve Jordan, Richards’ drummer in his side band the X-pensive Winos, gently prodded the guitarist to make another record after he had published his 2010 memoir Life and was talking about retiring. As long as they can play, musicians don’t retire, Jordan says he told Richards. Richards got the message, and over months of what began as casual jamming, he and Jordan came up with 13 new songs and two covers.
The album opens with its title track, an acoustic country blues that should silence the naysayers who claim that Richards has lost his chops (supposedly either because of arthritis or alcohol abuse). He’s in fine form, picking like Robert Johnson, and funny, too – at the 1:52 mark, he shrugs, “OK, that’s all I got.” At the beginning of “Amnesia”, he mutters, “I ain’t gonna do nothing, I ain’t gonna do shit, I’m sitting here waiting till the shit kicks in – you got it?” When said shit kicks in, it’s a classic riff-rocker with lyrics that seem to allude to the head injury he sustained in 2006 when he fell from a tree, an accident that proved more serious than it seemed at first – a decade later, Richards still takes anti-seizure meds.
The funk-rock “Substantial Damage” kicks off with a James Brown-like voice calling “Tighten up!” The X-pensive Winos heed the call, as Richards talk-sings a complaint that anyone ever annoyed by a dinner companion absorbed with a digital device can appreciate: “What is that thing attached to your ear / I’m talkin’ to you but you don’t seem to hear / I’m paying for dinner / and I might as well not be here”. The rueful breakup ballad “Illusion” is a duet with Nora Jones; she’s adequate, but (ex-LaBelle member) Sarah Dash, one of the album’s backup vocalists, would’ve made a stronger impression. “Blues in the Morning” pays homage to Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry and offers further proof that Mr. Jagger isn’t the Stones’ only master of the kiss-off lyric: “Got a picture of your face / I hold it up to the light / and on a good day baby / it still gives me a fright”.
“Trouble” is the most Stones-y track on Crosseyed Heart; after the band’s intro, you almost expect ol’ rubber lips to leap in. Richards’ and Waddy Wachtel’s tandem guitar parts, rhythm and slide, recall the late-’60s/early-’70s partnership with Mick Taylor. On the dejected country ballad “Robbed Blind”, Keith’s a crime victim: he discovers that his lover and a friend have cooked up a scheme to steal his money and betray him. But what can he do? “The cops I can’t involve them / No telling what they’d find”.
The album’s two covers, Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” and Gregory Isaacs’ “Love Overdue” are well-chosen and beautifully rendered. On “Irene” Richards’ vocal evokes Bob Dylan – the sound of the young Dylan, that is, not the ancient ruins of his latter-day recordings. “Love Overdue” is so good you wonder why the Stones always have been hapless when it comes to reggae. Richards nails the sound of ’70s “lovers rock”, the rhythmic foundation, plinking “dub” piano, and riffing horns. His vocal delivery doesn’t equal Isaacs’, but it has more than a touch of the soulful melancholy that made the late “Cool Ruler” one of reggae’s most distinctive voices.
Crosseyed Heart would have benefited from some trimming; it could’ve done without a few of the riff-rockers and the ballad “Suspicious”, a rehash of “This Room is Empty” from the Stones’ A Bigger Bang album and “Wicked as it Seems” from Main Offender. But the album’s virtues outweigh its longeurs. Meticulously crafted (not “ramshackle”, as some reviewers would have you believe) yet loose-limbed, Crosseyed Heart sounds neither like an old man’s record nor a placeholder for the next Stones album.