Saturday, September 19, 2015

It's only rock and roll: Keith Richards - Crosseyed Heart

So let's get the obvious out of the way, right now: rock's Pirate King has never, ever, been blessed with a singing voice. Guitar chops, obviously, and in vast abundance on this, only his third solo album. But singing, no. 

That said, whatever satanic cocktail Keith Richards has so enthusiastically consumed over the course of his 71 years has turned his voice into an extension of his self-drawn caricature - gnarled, roguish, bourbon-soured, tobacco-stained.

And that, to be honest, is a huge part of Crosseyed Heart's tremendous appeal. Richards has long been anointed as the cool Stone, the vagabond-hearted half of The Glimmer Twins, the one with the avuncular, bronchial cackle who has become, alarmingly, far too much like John Sessions' brilliant Stellar Street take on him.

Sessions and Phil Cornwell's inspired imagining of Mick and Keef as Surbiton shopkeepers was, of course, a hilarious reinvention of the structured, ambitious, business brain of the operation (Jagger) and the louche, Jack Daniel's-slooshed reprobate (Richards), an image the latter's wonderful autobiography, Life, did little to dispel, either. But with the Stones continuing to coin it in from their 50th anniversary tour (which began almost three years ago), and now knowing how, once, what it took to bring them all into the same room, let alone the same stadium, it's fair to say that the brains of the Rolling Stones are spread pretty evenly.

Where their creative core is, is another matter. While Jagger has never been a shrinking violet when it comes to songwriting (case in point: Miss You - though credited to Jagger/Richards - was actually co-written by the generously-lipped one with Ronnie Wood), it has always been clear where the Stones' energy comes from. Because it is here, on Crosseyed Heart.

Richards' virtuosity as a guitarist rarely gets mentioned by a press more concerned with his apparent chemical imperiousness. And, as with all musicians of his vintage (which is considerable), critics will always hark on about how far back you have to go to find the high points (no pun intended). Of course, Let It Bleed, Exile On Main Street and Sticky Fingers were incredible, Some Girls still good, and those that followed patchy, but there is little in the Stones' canon that you would regard as truly bad (including, yes, Bridges To Babyon).

You can argue, too, as much as you like that everything the Stones have done since 1968 has been self-derivative, and if you wanted to be gimlet-eyed about it, Crosseyed Heart, doesn't do much to change any of that. But that, to be honest, would be to deny Richards (whom, we all suspect, genuinely doesn't give a proverbial) the satisfaction of producing easily the best of his three solo albums to date.

Indeed, Richards is gloriously laid back on this album - not musically, just in how relaxed he appears to be, from the cover shot to the generous wealth of material - 15 tracks in all. Richards might stray rarely from the blues - the title track opens the album with an exquisite slice of acoustic Delta which fizzles out with the Richards opining "that's all I've got" before launching into Heartstopper with the grinding, Telecaster familiarity of the guitarist's more famous gig crunching deliciously through.

There is plenty of variety - Richard's love of Caribbean climes beams through on a spirited cover of Gregory Isaacs’ Love Overdue - and autobiography, too, with the self-depreciating Amnesia recalling his appropriately Keith-esque fall from a coconut tree ("Knocked on my head, everything went blank. I didn't even know, the Titanic sank") and the Latin-tinged Robbed Blind alluding to the criminal disappearance of illicit pharmacological supplies. 

On that score, ho-ho, Richards drifts in and out of warm, sepia throughout the album, that voice sitting somewhere between Tom Waits and Willie Nelson as he reflects on the sublime Nothing On Me about how he has dealt with the sling and arrows - and live bullets - that have come his way, or his relationship with challenge on Trouble (”Baby, trouble is your middle name. The trouble is that that's your game.").

With collaborations from Norah Jones, the Stones' late saxophonist Bobby Keys (much loved by Richards and the source of one his biggest falling-outs with Jagger) and various members of his X-Pensive Winos side outfit, Crosseyed Heart is almost a companion piece to the Life book. Part confessional, part trivial, part celebration, it is as fulfilling an album as any you could expect to listen to from a rock star who, after more than 50 years at the very apex of the game, is still right up there.

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