The third solo album by Keith Richards, his first in over two decades, is easily his best. And while that might not say exactly a whole lot it’s also better – I’m sure of it – than if we’d been given a new Rolling Stones album this year. Okay, okay, that’s still a low bar in your mind I can tell…so let’s explore this a bit further.
Keith – joined by his X-Pensive Winos cheerleader/drummer/producer Steve Jordan and a shit-hot band of stalwarts (Waddy Wachtel even frames up and trims his inter-splicing guitar lines so as you’d assume that it’s Woody not Waddy) Keith proves he has the songs for another Stones record. More than that, left to explore what he’s become best at – the world-weary, broken-hearted/voiced album-closing ballad – Richards here offers a handful of songs in the style of Steel Wheels’ Slipping Away and Voodoo Lounge’s The Worst (okay, so that one’s not an album closer but it should have been, and it’s become a concert favourite). We get four or five rather than the usual two or three. And this ends up being a very good thing.
We first hear Keef in Dylan-voiced mode, deft acoustic lines beneath, on Robbed Blind, Crosseyed’s fourth cut. A little sprinkling of steel guitar beneath. We’ll get to hear him do this again across the album’s hour long run of strong/strong-ish songs. And it always works.
When he goes to the other Keith style – essentially backtracking to the Before They Make Me Run/Happy sound – we get the record’s wry first single, Trouble. This, clearly, would have been one of the two Keith songs on any new Stones album. And a highlight. We’ve heard it before, but it works.
More of Richards – a full album – does mean we get one or two stock-rock plodders. But that’s less than would be the case if he had collaborated with Jagger. Jagger’s too proud to do ballads these days – it shows up his voice. Keith instead basks in it. Where Mick thinks it opens him to weakness Keith revels in it, turns that weakness to strength.
A cover of Gregory Isaacs’ Long Overdue takes us back to the sounds and style of Black and Blue (well, nearly…) but it’s those ballads that do it for me. If Suspicious isn’t the best thing he’s done since Slipping Away then, most certainly, the duet with Norah Jones that follows a couple of tracks later (Illusion) is absolutely the new gold-standard for Keef. The way his foggy croak lets a line just hang has always been one of singing’s great, well, illusions actually. And here it’s helped in that old Beauty/Beast way with Norah’s perfect coo to cuddle it.
There are the blues-reframed-as-rockers moments (Blues in the Morning) and song-pickin’ chestnuts (Goodnight Irene) that remind of Richards’ pedigree, his life’s work, the love of his life – this music – but ultimately it just keeps coming back to the fact that this is better – far better – than anyone could have predicted. Even Keith’s own shit-sniffing smirk belies the fact that this one was as shaky as his coconut climb (referenced here on early rock highlight, Amnesia) right up until it was finally released. I bet his motivation was to make Sir Mick squirm. And I bet it’s worked.