Just under a decade ago, there was a moment when The Black Keys genuinely may have been one of the biggest bands on the planet. By 2010, Arctic Monkeys were conquering arenas in the UK and Europe, but not yet making a dent worldwide. The White Stripes and My Chemical Romance were approaching their end, while Foo Fighters were still on hiatus before recapturing their mojo on ‘Wasting Light’ a year later. A new generation of shit-kickers (The 1975, Florence and The Machine, Foals and more) were still earning their stripes.
By the time 2010’s ‘Brothers’ was released – the band’s breakthrough record – Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney had paid their dues. They’d released five albums that had slowly established themselves as one of the few blues-rock bands that could cross over to the mainstream. And cross over they did. ‘Howling For You’ and ‘Tighten Up’ boosted their profile before their seventh album, ‘El Camino’ put them in arenas and at the top of festival bills.
Their last album, 2014’s psych-tinged ‘Turn Blue’ was a fine, if slightly forgettable follow-up. Sure, the funky ‘Fever’ became a radio staple and the album nabbed them more nods from The Grammy’s, but it was perhaps less of a cultural moment than might be expected. The band retracted from public view, with the duo favouring side-projects and production work for the next five years.
It’s relieving, perhaps, that it’s seemingly had little impact on The Black Keys and their comeback single ‘Lo/Hi’. Their first piece of new music in five years stays true to their ethos: be the best band you can be. In that sense, it’s most certainly a fine and intriguing comeback.
From the opening growling riff, it’s clear The Black Keys are operating just as expected. There’s a beefy chorus (“high like a bird in the sky/low because you’re angry”), studio howls and uplifting backing vocals. It’s the soundtrack to the type of party that doesn’t exist anymore, but one you still wish you were cool enough to get the invite to.
There’s a good chance that it may well see them return to the arenas, but it’s a song that belongs in a different time – when rock was king. But perhaps that’s fine. Perhaps, sometimes, the only thing you can hope for when a band returns after a half-decade absence is to stay true to themselves.
The Black Keys have done that here and coloured-in neatly and diligently. But if they want to avoid being a legacy band – a distinct reality – perhaps it’s time to scribble outside the lines just a little bit.