“Back to basics,” in the parlance of rock bands, is damage control in the form of a well-worn record review cliché. It’s meant to evoke a deliberate simplification, a grand casting off of artifice and pretension, a gesture that restores an act’s totally raw and rockin’ joie de vivre. But it’s really a kind of coded apology. What it says to an audience is, “Look, we acknowledge that you didn’t like our last record, so now we’re going to make something we think you’ll like, because we know you definitely liked this sort of thing before.”
For The Black Keys — who are back with their first album in five years, the extremely “back to basics”-y “Let’s Rock” — this need for reassurance stems from 2014’s Turn Blue, a moody curveball that dipped significantly from the commercial heights of 2010’s Brothers and 2011’s El Camino. It’s understandable why the prodigal Keys, guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney, might want to turn the page from Turn Blue. Not only was the album viewed as a commercial and creative disappointment, it was also rooted in the pain of Auerbach’s divorce. Over a bed of surly guitar solos and languid psych-tinged R&B grooves, Auerbach wallowed like a reluctant rock star suffering from a fame hangover. “Maybe all the good women are gone,” he moans on one track. When Auerbach and Carney eventually retreated to the relative obscurity of their respective side projects, it hardly seemed like a surprise.
But for “Let’s Rock” — the title, taken from the final words of a death row inmate in Tennessee, is not the straight-forward pandering than it initially appears to be — The Black Keys want you to know that they’re back to playing fun, riff-centric jams. In interviews, Auerbach and Carney have emphasized how the songs were written and recorded quickly, with the focus on just guitars and drums, and absolutely no keyboards. (The latter disclaimer seems like an oblique reference to the absence of Danger Mouse, the producer who guided The Black Keys’ commercial ascendence. By Turn Blue, he was a de-facto third member, supplying, yes, crucial keyboard accents.)
However, the “back to basics” narrative has an obvious plot hole for a band formerly as primordial as The Black Keys. To buy “Let’s Rock” as “raw,” it helps if your experience with the Auerbach and Carney extends only as far as Brothers and the album’s much-licensed hit single, “Tighten Up.” Back then, Auerbach told Rolling Stone that “guitar bores the shit out of me most of the time.” It was part of The Black Keys’ makeover as a canny pop band that occasionally flashed a snaky, T. Rex-style guitar riff. Compared to that, the new album is practically gutbucket blues.
If, however, you remember the days of 2003’s Thickfreakness and 2004’s Rubber Factory, it will be impossible to discern “Let’s Rock” from the glossy arena rock of El Camino, the hit factory that produced radio monsters like “Lonely Boy” and “Gold On The Ceiling.” When The Black Keys truly were a “back to basics” band, their songwriting method was “taking old blues riffs, making up lyrics on the spot, and turning it into a song,” as Auerbach once put it. But they’re not that kind of band anymore.
The point of “Let’s Rock” isn’t to revisit the basement blooze of the early ’00s; it’s to remind fans of the early ’10s, when The Black Keys were one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Unfortunately, while El Camino still sounds like one of the decade’s most confident and undeniable mainstream rock records, “Let’s Rock” feels like an attempt to retrieve something that perhaps can no longer be recovered.
For what it’s worth, I like Turn Blue. The fact that it wasn’t as radio-friendly as its predecessors seemed wholly intentional. The Black Keys had achieved a unique position for a rock band in the early 21st century — they made music that was actually recognizable as part of the architecture of mainstream pop. That was accomplished, in large part, by the band’s preternatural ability to create music that fit well in commercials. Even now, catchy blues-rock riffs that either derive from The Black Keys or sound a lot like The Black Keys evoke images of trucks, fast food, and domestic beer. It is the very sound of American commerce — which is to say, modern America itself.
But the ubiquity also stripped The Black Keys of a lot of their personality. At some point, they went from being middle-American upstarts making a surprising coup of mainstream rock, to the epitome of the middle-of-the-road norm. While The Keys had once made a sport of calling out Nickelback, some saw them as the very thing they once rebelled against.
Turn Blue was a left turn for them — an introspective protest that made no attempt to hide the emotional and professional anguish the band was feeling. (It’s their Goats Head Soup.) “Let’s Rock,” meanwhile, is an attempt to turn right back where they once were. Sometimes the callbacks to the past are obvious — the Electric Warrior worship of “Lo/Hi” is a rewrite of “Gold On The Ceiling.” The surf-rock single “Go” recalls the feel-good bounce of “Lonely Boy.” “Walk Across The Water” and “Every Little Thing” are boilerplate blues-rock bangers that sound like they were written inside of a Buffalo Wild Wings.
The slickness of this material isn’t the problem. The schism in the band’s fanbase — between those who prefer the grime of the early stuff vs. those who came on board with hits started piling up — has never been a fair binary. Good music exists on both sides of the divide. Auerbach and Carney remain incredibly skilled at creating immediate rock songs that communicate with the directness of pop. Songs like “Sit Around and Miss You” and “Under The Gun” are designed to sound good coming off car stereos, and in that regard they are successful.
Where “Let’s Rock” falters is when the songs fade out, and you’re left feeling next to nothing. Turn Blue was far from perfect, but at least it felt like an attempt to dig past the surface and conjure something fraught and painful. But “Let’s Rock” is all surface. It is the first Black Keys album that only feels like product. A convenient excuse to get back on the road, a smart business move, the worst kind of “basic” there is.
“Let’s Rock” is out now on Nonesuch. Get it here.