Crosseyed Heart isn’t quite a continuation of the ragged, groove-heavy rapport Keith Richards established with his other band, the X-Pensive Winos, on his first two solo albums, 1988’s Talk Is Cheap and 1992’s Main Offender. Winos drummer Steve Jordan co-writes and plays on nearly every track here, and guitarist Waddy Wachtel and keyboardist Ivan Neville make appearances as well, but Richards plays the majority of the guitar, bass, and piano parts himself. While the rheumatoid arthritis that has swollen his knuckles to the size of mangos has significantly diminished his guitar chops over the last decade or so, he’s still a master of varying guitar tones and piecing together overdubbed riffs in the studio. That much is evident on tracks like the smoky rocker “Amnesia” and the loose, funky “Substantial Damage.” And no matter how many thousands of times he’s refried the same Chuck Berry licks he’s been using since 1962, they still sound great on the Jerry Lee Lewis-style “Blues in the Morning,” which also features a cameo from the late, great saxophonist and longtime Richards running mate Bobby Keys.
Though Richards doesn’t have the same stockpile of original riffs in him that he used to, he’s still capable of rattling off something unexpected when he puts the effort in. The snappy guitar work and chorus melody of the snarling, edgy rocker “Heartstopper” are unmistakably Richardsian, yet the song itself doesn’t fit snugly into any pre-established Rolling Stones paradigm. More often than not, Crosseyed Heart finds Richards leaning on genre exercises, some of which are more successful than others: The smoky after-hours ballad “Illusion” sounds an awful lot like Richards’s own “Make No Mistake,” right down to the sultry female guest vocalist—in this case, Norah Jones.
The relatively low ratio of octane riffage means many of these songs hinge on Richards’s worn, oaky voice. His low, craggly growl suits the rock songs well, and he manages perhaps the tenderest vocal performance of his career on the reggae-infused “Love Overdue.” On an acoustic cover of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene,” he hits on a high, reedy register, coming closer to the timbre he achieved harmonizing with Jagger on the Stones’ classic run of albums in the late ’60s and early ’70s than he has in decades. Derivative? Sure. But when you’ve got a musical history as storied as Richards’s, reliving the past isn’t the worst idea.