In Line for the Masquerade: A Review of 'Let's Rock' by The Black Keys
Adam Venrick, August 9, 2019
There are certain times when a work of art offers a provocation just in its very name, whether it’s Leonard Cohen challenging: “You Want it Darker?” Or David Sedaris suggesting “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls.” The Black Keys do the same thing with their new release ‘Let’s Rock,’ released just this summer. And really, though it may seem almost a cliché, the title really is suiting for the album. Not only is it an invitation, but in it’s stylized quotation marks, it becomes a rallying cry.
Looking at it objectively, one would almost have hard time believing that this was the same duo that came onto the scene in 2002 with The Big Come Up. The sound is so much more polished than their early records, perhaps even more so than on 2010’s Brothers. And certainly it’s different. The Black Keys of old were an almost straight up Blues band, much like Fleetwood Mac. And like Fleetwood Mac, they have come into a commercial peak in their career playing more album oriented rock. In fact, there’s probably more of bands like Fleetwood Mac (late 70s era), The Eagles, The Little River Band and possibly even Electric Light Orchestra in ‘Let’s Rock’ than there is B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf or Elmore James. Not that that’s a bad thing. In writing the past three reviews for this blog, I’ve covered artists that have (or purposely haven’t) evolved substantially throughout their career. And really, it’s not hard to see full-fledged rock and roll from the group. Turn Blue, El Camino (perhaps their best album) and Brothers all seemed more and more rockish, with Brothers (and its famed single “Howlin’ For You”) being the best example of Blues-Rock.
But ‘Let’s Rock’ doesn’t pretend to be like The Big Come Up or the wonderfully titled Thickfreakness. It’s title is more than just something to shout, it’s an invitation to something different. Like so many bands of our time that get labelled as alternative, The Black Keys has one foot in the past and one foot in the future. Nostalgia is a big part of their act, whether it’s in blues or rock and listeners here will be quick to find shades of the 1970s in this album. Even some of the song titles feel familiar. “Shine a Little Light” reminds one of “Shine a Little Love” by ELO and “Tell Me Lies” seems so reminiscent of the chorus to Fleetwood Mac’s “Little Lies.” But that’s not to say the band feels unoriginal, disingenuous or overdone (and there are certainly pleanty of bands today that do.) Rather than just a fetishism for music of years-gone-by, there’s a genuine love for the music that Auerbach and Carney were raised on.
Which brings me to another point. As someone born and raised in Ohio, a state which (possibly somewhat accurately) gets labelled as boring, static or otherwise “second run,” there’s something utterly thrilling about knowing that the kind of music which shapes out pop-culture is finally starting to come from here. (Admittedly, the album was recorded in Nashville, but still.) Some of the songs are truly wonderful, too. The leading single “Lo/Hi,” (a perennial favorite on the station’s “New Music Show” this past spring) is a strong foot forward, bound to be coming to a cell-phone commercial near you soon. “Eagle Birds,” is also a fantastic rocker, along with great slower songs like “Sit Around and Miss You” and “Every Little Thing.” “Fire Walk With Me” is pretty good (though perhaps a different song would’ve made a better closer.) The album’s best song, though, is not a single, but rather, the mid-album “Get Yourself Together,” which even now is stuck in my head as I type this.
That being said, the album doesn’t come without some problems. For one thing, the album does feel like a tailor-made comeback album. It’s designed to be catchy, toe-tapping and most importantly, profitable. Now granted, there’s nothing wrong with that, music is a career just like any other, it should pay the bills. The thing about come-back albums, whether it’s after five years or twenty, is that there’s a fine line between great and slightly underwhelming when compared with the things that came before it. For instance, when Steely Dan made their come back with Two Against Nature, it was great. When Bowie made The Next Day, it was underwhelming. This album is somewhere in the middle of great and underwhelming. It’s got all the right boxes checked. Most of the songs are really, really good, it flows nicely (in most spaces) and it’s not overly long. (It’s under forty minutes and doesn’t feel much longer or somehow shorter.) It has the same advantages that albums like Rumours or The Velvet Underground & Nico have. The difference being that those albums were pioneering the kind of music The Black Keys make here and, moreover, those albums had utterly fantastic songs, not really, really good songs. V.U. & N is fifty-two this year. Rumours, forty-two. Today, everyone can groove along to the jazzy bass of “Dreams” and every high school senior to ever read Naked Lunch knows “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “Venus in Furs.”
Forty years from now, it’s probable that Lo/Hi might the one that survives. This, incidentally brings me to my last point. Remember when I said that the album manages not to be derivative? That’s true in every case but its third single “Go,” which sounds, not like a great classic rocker, or like a smokey, blues-infused tune, but like a million other subpar pop songs that receive so much extra radio play today. In that case, the song, which begins with the line “In the summer time, when it’s hot outside…” is designed to be just something that someone can crank up in their car while they ride down the highway. Nothing wrong with that at heart. But also nothing original. It’s a summer pop song, and to be fair, it’s a summery album, but I have to identify this song in particular as one of the weaker links.
So, to be fair, one should listen to The Black Keys and ‘Let’s Rock’ is a great starting point. It’s accessible to people who like pop and rock and who might be interested in something bluesier. Start here, work to their early stuff and then some B.B. King. And regardless of how I may disparage “Go,” I have a good amount of respect for this group. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are two Midwesterners who have shaped much of American pop-culture in the twenty-teens, (Carney composed the theme for BoJack Horseman after all.) I think that for all of it’s fault’s, ‘Let’s Rock’ is still a great album and proves that we should continue to pay attention to what the duo has to say.
Final Score: 85%