ALBUM REVIEW: The Black Keys – ‘Let’s Rock’

6/10

The Black Keys

After five years, The Black Keys have released their ninth studio album, triumphantly titled: ‘Let’s Rock’. The album sees the duo return to rock in its most simplistic form, inspired by guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney’s teenage in the 1990s. Carney calls the album “a homage to the electric guitar”; ‘Let’s Rock’ is evidence that after over twenty years of making music, The Black Keys have an unshakeable understanding and mastery of rock and their midwestern signature.

For Auerbach and Carney, taking time off from touring and songwriting is crucial to their creative process when it comes to producing a new album. The pair have been busy in the five years since Turn Blue was released, but their work on independent projects and collaborations with other artists have rejuvenated. According to Auerbach, creating Let’s Rock was “like riding a bike” and the first track of the album, Shine a Light, is effortlessly cool and evidence that the duo hasn’t lost their rhythm.

In Eagle Birds, the duo flexes their adopted Nashville identity, where they have lived for nearly ten years, and where Let’s Rock was conceived and created. Though Auerbach and Carney returned to their youth— spent in Akron, Ohio—for much of the album, Eagle Birds clearly draws inspiration from the country and blues music for which Nashville is renowned for. The song is evocative of the classic, all-American road trip, and has been released just in time to be listened to all throughout this summer.

Lo/Hi was the first song released by the band ahead of the album, and jumped to the top of Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Songs, Adult Alternative Songs, Rock Airplay, and Alternative Songs charts; marking in history the first time any song has been #1 on all four at the same time. Lo/Hi is a song about isolation in a modern time and was perhaps inspired by the band’s emotional reaction to producing the pensive, psychedelic melodies of Turn Blue in 2014, which left the pair burnt out and bored of touring.

Perfection through simplicity is found in both the guitar melody and lyrics of Walk Across The Water. The track is lyrically evocative of Prince’s ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ and likewise draws influence from ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ by Hendrix; however, it—like many modern love songs—blurs the line between romantic and platonic love. In the five-year interim between Turning Blue and Let’s Rock, Ralph Carney, Patrick’s uncle and early musical influence and inspiration, suddenly died, aged 61. Though not confirmed by the band, the religious subtext of Walk Across The Water is a fitting tribute to a man whose passion for music impacted the pair for their entire lives.

Like Lo/Hi before it, Tell Me Lies is a track which draws inspiration from beyond Auerbach and Carney’s roots as musicians, but rather as people.  The psychedelic guitar riffs and swampy chorus make for a refreshing change from the contemporary rock scene. Tell Me Lies plays to its own steady beat, and like many other songs from the album (such as Shine a Light), its funky baseline is unarguably cool. Let’s Rock is a consistent album with a clear sense of direction and artistic integrity. The Black Keys have captured the feelings of triumph and confidence, and this is clear from the first bars of the album, all the way through to the final chord.

When the time came for Let’s Rock to be made, Auerbach and Carney came to the studio with no preconceptions and prepared to jam together exactly as they did in their teens. It’s interesting then, the unintentional theme running throughout the album: the cautionary tale. Lo/Hi is a song warning against the claustrophobic dangers of isolation, but Every Little Thing similarly an ode about karma. In The Black Key’s twenty-year career, the five year interim between Turning Blue and Let’s Rock was an unexpectedly long separation and in Let’s Rock, and one that didn’t go unnoticed by their fans.

 Especially in Go, the eighth song of the album, in which Auerbach and Carney explicitly tried to explain to the fans why the hiatus lasted so long. The video for the record, directed by Bryan Schlam follows the pair through a peaceful retreat, struggling to reconnect with one another. Lyrically, Let’s Rock is not an album of convoluted narratives, and Go, is no exception. Go is aptly named, and its upbeat rhythm will place it on many an alternative running playlist.

Track eight, Sit Around And Miss You, is a folk-rock track with a blend of both acoustic and electric guitar riffs, reminiscent of the iconic ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’ by Stealer’s Wheel.  Though the song is well-written and polished in its own right, for a listener’s first thought to be of another artist is an unmistakable flaw in the song, and of the album as a whole.

For this album Black Keys wanted to make music like “[they] used to”— and have created music true to their artistic vision. Auerbach compared the band’s honing of their Midwestern edge to “a prison shank turned into a Ginsu blade”.  However even a Ginsu knife has a dull edge; some of the songs—including some of the riffs in Lo/Hi—are predictable, and don’t build upon or challenge the rock genre. Though Let’s Rock is a strong album, full of well-crafted songs, there is an aftertaste of missed opportunity from two artists who are no stranger to innovative collaborations.

Let’s Rock is no stranger to songs which lyrically differ from their melody, but in Breaking Down and Under the Gun, the themes of weariness and feeling trapped are no longer hidden in the subtext. However, the two songs are different and unique. Breaking Down is another example of the ‘cool’ vibes running throughout the album; it is almost formulaic in it’s stripped back verses and then exciting, harmonising choruses. Which is not to say that Under the Gun is a sudden detour from The Black Key’s established style, as it too follows the same (predictable) formula as the rest of the album. However, the song prickles with a different kind of energy; instead of being empowering, the song borders on threatening in its message.

Fire Walk With Me is the final track of this long-awaited album. Let’s Rock is—obviously— not a bold new direction for the duo, but rather a reclamation of their original artistic vision, and the opportunity to combine their raw, uncompromised style of music with the newly-won star power awarded from Brothers. As such, the last track of the album needed to be one last clear statement of intent and leave a powerful lasting impression; enough to tide over fans until the next album (whenever that will be).  Fire Walk With Me is exactly that: a song which encapsulates the tone of the album as a whole, and is strong, well written and enjoyable song. But, like the album as a whole, it is not without flaws.

The problem with returning to the roots, is that we already know how the song will go, and what to expect; Fire Walk With Me doesn’t re-capture people’s attention in the way that a song should, and as such is suffers from blurring and blending in with the rest of the album; the only differing characteristic the song holds is that its topic is the most cliché of the tracklist.

Let’s Rock is an album that was “meant to be” for the band; it is symbolic of the duo’s strength and friendship, even after a period of uncertainty. It’s a celebration of the electric guitar, and the strength in simplicity. Songs like Lo/Hi and Go have already proven that the album is likely to also enjoy the commercial success of its predecessors. However, this return to the past is not inherently a promise of a strong future; the album does not feel new, nor does it reflect the varied experiences Auerbach and Carney had without each other during the hiatus. Though, that may be due to the pairs previous bad experiences with letting their solo careers interfere with the band. Let’s Rock is an album which could have promised an interesting and innovative new direction for The Black Keys, but instead lies as a flawlessly executed return to monotony.

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