It was hard to imagine in the years when Chris and Rich Robinson weren’t even on speaking terms, but the Black Crowes have managed to write and record their first studio album of new material in 15 years. Happiness Bastards is due March 15, with a hard-riffing, big-chorused first single, “Wanting and Waiting,” out now.
For the Robinsons, who reconciled in 2019 after what seemed like a final parting in 2015, creating new music together was the easy part. “I wouldn’t say we had to repair our writing relationship, because that was never an issue,” guitarist Rich Robinson says. “That was always the one natural thing, with very little volatility — when we would sit down to write, for whatever reason. Everything else was just making the decision to be adults, and not fall back into those sort of old patterns. But us getting back together and being cool and just getting it to that place lifts everything up.”
Since the beginning, when they slipped onto MTV in 1990 with a muscled-up cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle,” and then dropped a roots-soaked second album, Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, in the face of the alt-rock explosion, the band has been proudly out of step with the times. “We were wearing velvet bell-bottoms, and, like, Eddie Vedder would wear shorts and flannels,” says Rich. “As the world kept shifting and shifting and shifting, we just made our records and did what we did… I write how I write, like it or hate it. I think Chris is the same way… We have always followed our heart, followed our ears where we choose to. Sometimes to our commercial detriment.”
So it’s no surprise that Happiness Bastards offers close to zero reminders that it’s a 2024 album, with the Robinson brothers, plus bassist Sven Pipien and touring drummer Brian Griffin, simply delivering an impressively energetic set of songs firmly in their rock revivalist bag. Producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Cage the Elephant) focused on a live, natural sound. “We knew we were going to have a producer and we’d made a conscious decision to allow him to tell us what to do a bit,” says Rich. “We hadn’t really worked with someone who quote-unquote produced us in years, since pretty much Southern Harmony. Jay really handled Chris and I’s dynamic in the studio, better than I could have imagined.”
From the Led Zeppelin III ambition of “Cross Your Fingers” to the funked-out “Dirty Cold Sun” to the wistful album closer “Kindred Friend,” it all would fit even better on Seventies AOR radio than, say, the Rolling Stones’ Hackney Diamonds. “I feel like I have, over the years, grown in my ability, brought in all of these different textures and musical styles and all these different things to our one chosen form of expression, which is rock & roll music,” says Robinson. “Which has always been the broadest form of music because it has always encompassed Black music, white music, folk music, Celtic music, jazz — rock & roll music has always incorporated everything. And that’s why Chris and I were always drawn to it. Because Sly Stone was just as rock & roll as Keith Richards, who was just as rock & roll as fucking Joni Mitchell.”
The one guest on the album is acclaimed Nashville singer-songwriter Lainey Wilson, who harmonizes with Chris on one of the album’s best tracks, the winding, gospel-flavored, half-ballad “Wilted Rose.” The brothers met WIlson, a longtime fan, when they performed at the CMT Awards last year with Darius Rucker. But the Crowes have no plans to fully embrace the country world: “We’ve always been an island unto ourselves,” Rich says.
The brothers are both in their fifties, and as the album title suggests, middle age seems to suit them. “Chris sounds fucking better than ever, in my opinion,” says Rich.
Happiness Bastards tracklist:
“Rats and Clowns”
“Cross Your Fingers”
“Wanting and Waiting”
“Wilted Rose” (feat. Lainey Wilson)
“Dirty Cold Sun”
“Bleed It Dry”
“Follow the Moon”