There is something about hearing Keith Richards embrace the Leadbelly classic Goodnight Irene in the midst of his new album, Crosseyed Heart, that is as charming as it is unexpected. On first listen, you might think you were listening to 1990s-era Bob Dylan as the boozy, scratchy but obviously enchanted vocals envelop a parlor-style backdrop. But Keith being Keith, the whole thing dances like a ballet in a brothel.
The folkish sway isn't entirely indicative of Richards' first solo album in more than two decades. There also are snapshots of blues, reggae, jagged pop and, of course, the sort of loose but turbulent rhythmic jams that have long been second nature to the guitarist who remains the heartbeat of the Rolling Stones.
In essence, Crosseyed Heart is not so much a studio album as it is a block party. The album's opening title tune is a slice of relaxed acoustic blues, the morning serenade of a reveler temporarily at rest. A few songs later, Richards starts flexing his electric cunning with a roving bit of party fun called Trouble ("maybe trouble is your middle name") that celebrates the Stones sound of decades past. That leads directly into Love Overdue, a fresh blast of horn-driven reggae sunshine. By the time he reaches Suspicious, Richards is playing the crooner on a twilight-hued meditation that can easily be pictured sung under a streetlight (or in a back alley). Then you run smack into Something for Nothing, a churning celebration heard initially from a distance, as though the song was marching from down the street in your direction. But when it hits, the party hits full force with pure, rhythmic cheer. In a blindfold test, the tune could pass for a Stones song in a heartbeat.
Amazingly, all of that covers only the first half of Crosseyed Heart. What comes next is the album's biggest curveball, a duet with Norah Jones in Illusion. Jones is in Richards' junkyard here and adopts a woozy vocal counterpoint that is strangely complementary. But the whopper is a clanging, rumbling rumination of a head-butting relationship on the skids titled Substantial Damage ("What are we doing together? You got the broom, I've got the feather").
The same cohorts who formed the foundation of Richards '80s-'90s side project troupe, The X-pensive Winos — drummer/co-producer Steve Jordan, guitarist Waddy Wachtel and, posthumously, saxophonist Bobby Keys — are back on board for the party. But Richards is the soulful, happily battered star here. He wears his crosseyed heart like a badge of honor, discovering warmth and cheers in the heart of rock 'n' roll darkness.
Walter Tunis | Contributing Music Critic