“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.