Sound — 8
There is not much that can be said about Keith Richards that has not already been said. As the rhythm guitarist for The Rolling Stones, Richards helped to pioneer rock guitar. Some would even argue he invented the riff-driven song with "Satisfaction," an idea that supposedly came to him in his sleep. Richards' infamous face, prominently displayed here as album art, has been used as a prime example of what a lifetime of drug abuse can do (in both sad and funny contexts). Recently, Richards has drawn fire for his heavy criticism of The Beatles, Metallica, rap music, and more. These comments have led some to wonder if Richards is now just an old, cantankerous curmudgeon ready to go into retirement. It is with such interest that the world has awaited "Crosseyed Heart," Richards' first solo album since "Main Offender" in 1992.
It would not be incorrect to describe this as grandpa rock. There isn't too much distortion. The rhythms don't get too fast. And there are numerous ancillary instruments (piano, horns, etc.) that get added to the mix at select points to lighten the tone. Yes, this may be soft grandpa rock, but it is really good soft grandpa rock.
I have often read that distortion hides a guitarist's mistakes, implying that a better guitarist plays with a cleaner tone. A corollary to that, I've thought, is that a good guitarist does not need pedals to get good tone, which implies that a good guitarist has a bare signal chain. While neither of these is necessarily true, Richards makes a good case for them with his experienced and tempered playing. He constantly "sings" with his playing, in which he makes each note sound incredibly meaningful. His tone doesn't really vary across the album, yet it always seems to fit the situation. Likewise, Richards' solos don't veer too far from the pentatonic scale, if at all, yet they always seem to fill their space perfectly. Richards' calculated, characteristic rhythm playing allows for this seemingly incompatible contrast of simple playing to perfect placement in his lead playing. As is often the case with bass, the best rhythm guitar is not that which is heard, but is that which pushes the lead guitar into something that it could not be otherwise and Richards certainly exemplifies this sentiment.
While pretty much every song on this album has a blues base, Keith Richards is still able to run the gamut with his technique. For example, the opener is a short blues entirely on acoustic guitar that Richards plays like the old Robert Johnson recordings from the late '20s. His fingerpick, slide technique feels like a lost art in the rock world so it is refreshing to hear Richards bring it back. Not only does he bring it back, he does a real good job at it and keeps his phrases completely coherent (try to count the time of Robert Johnson's "Crossroads"). "Heartstopper" and "Something for Nothing" are two examples of Richards' superb rhythm guitar bolstering some simple leads and giving them a more articulated voice. "Robbed Blind" is a similar example of how soft, yet thoughtful playing can create a large, full sound.
Lyrics — 6
One unfortunate thing about this album is that it makes clear why Mick Jagger is The Rolling Stones' lead vocalist. While Richards' deep, masculine voice does add some nice, surprising bottom end to the songs, the reality is that his voice appears so underdeveloped that it sounds like he is talking through his songs. Richards doesn't do much maneuvering with his vocal range either. Not everyone is gifted with a five-octave range, but a good vocalist knows how to use his/her range to create the effect he/she desires. Overall, Richards doesn't do a horrible job, but his subpar performance does a disservice to his masterful guitar work and one wonders how much better the album could be if a different vocalist had been brought aboard.
His lyrics are equally underwhelming. Richards deserves credit for varying his lyrical topics throughout the album, but the fact of the matter is that none of them are particularly compelling. He also does not match lyrical themes to the sonic qualities of songs. For example, "Robbed Blind" is one of the calmest songs on the album despite its subject matter.
Finally, exact verse repetition throughout a song is an understandable occurrence on this album given its blues underpinnings, but Richards takes it a little too far. He won't repeat verses over different chords like in a twelve bar blues, he just repeats entire sections of songs without variation. If closely listening, a song can easily sound boring after multiple repetitions, as is the case with "Suspicious." However, this impression definitely depends on the context in which one listens to the song and in some situations, these repetitions could come across positively.
Overall Impression — 8
Taken as a whole, "Crosseyed Heart" is truly a Keith Richards solo album. From its minimalist lead guitar and its vocal shortfalls to its brilliant control of atmosphere, this album is the epitome of the long and successful career of its composer. While more laid back than a typical Rolling Stones album, "Crosseyed Heart" is still a well-executed collection of music that could easily be played as background music at a light party or be used to calm someone down after a long day.
In closing, the warm production with consequential tape hiss is a welcome reminder of the sound that defined the music of yesteryear. Maybe Keith Richards is right in some ways. Or maybe I'm just getting too old too quickly.