Given the too much we already know about the public and private life of Keith Richards — keeper of the Rolling Stones’ flame for 30 years, black belt in nearly every form of debauchery known to man — it hardly seems a revelation when, near the end of his new solo album, he notes that ”there’s a demon in me, and I can’t live without it.” After all, a guy who has had his blood drained and replaced, as Richards did in the early ’70s for heroin-addiction treatment, and who still has the propensity for downing mass quantities of bourbon at the drop of a guitar pick, could have just about anything scurrying around in there. Still, when it comes to the rock & roll bug, many are bit but few are chosen — and on the surprisingly infectious Main Offender, Richards once again proves that the fever that has been raging through his much-abused veins for three full decades shows no sign of breaking anytime soon.
I say surprisingly infectious because, on most of this album’s 10 tracks, Richards and his core coconspirators (guitarist Waddy Wachtel, drummer Steve Jordan, bassist Charley Drayton, and keyboardist Ivan Neville) do their best to break down the very plasma of song structure. Richards’ maiden solo voyage, 1988’s Talk Is Cheap, and its in-concert follow-up, Keith Richards and the X-Pensive Winos Live at the Hollywood Palladium, December 15, 1988, were fairly conventional affairs: Stones-ish songs as sung by Keith, not Mick Jagger. Here, however, he seems more intent on establishing and sustaining movable grooves than discernible melody lines — though heaven (or hell) knows he can reel those off as easily as he can reel off his hundredth sizzling variation of the riff from ”Satisfaction.” When the two combine, as on the chant-filled ”Wicked As It Seems” and on the strikingly Chic-ish ”Bodytalks,” the results can be downright mesmerizing.
If there’s a reference point for such mood-over-matter triumphs as these, it’s probably the Memphis/Stax soul on which the Stones cut their teeth back when Richards’ ears stuck out and his blood was his own. While much is always made — and rightfully so — of the tremendous influence Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley had on Richards’ formative style, early Stones albums were just as likely to feature dutiful covers of songs by such groove masters as Solomon Burke, Otis Redding, and Don Covay as they would blues and rock covers of Chicago/Chess material. The heavily rhythmic, choppy fits and starts of Richards’ guitar playing stem more from those soul sources than from anywhere else; that’s a large part of the reason the Stones have always been able, in their ballads, to walk the mixed-emotion, tough/tender tightrope. On the plaintive ”Eileen” and the stellar ”Hate It When You Leave” — which, with its muted horns, subtle keyboards, and haunting chorus, is the defining moment of this album — Keith Richards manages, for maybe the first time since Let It Bleed‘s ”You Got the Silver” back in 1969, to walk that tightrope all by himself. Your move, Mick. B+