The beloved blues rock kings return, after five years away, with a record whose spontaneous energy can't mask its undercooked sound and lack of impact
It’s been five years since blues-rock muso duo The Black Keys last graced us with their presence, taking a long break to deal with injuries and PTSD, both sustained on tour. Their last album – 2014’s ‘Turn Blue’ – had secured their place as arena headliners after their Danger Mouse-produced ‘El Camino’ first put them there in 2011. The latter was full of thrusting, urgent blues-rock – the kind that, despite being rooted in the past, sounds fresh and electrifying. Its successor tried to mix things up a little, muddling psych flashes into the pair’s winning formula, but the results were average at best.
Revivified and refreshed from such a long time off from their day jobs – both Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney worked with many other artists in the interim – you might expect new LP ‘Let’s Rock’ to take them back to the days when they were kings of the garage-rock castle. And yet while there are a few redeeming moments, their reunion doesn’t sound remotely close to the work of two musicians reclaiming their best years.
According to Auerbach, ‘Let’s Rock’ was written “spontaneously”, with overthinking banned from the studio. As a result, it’s a pretty lively listen, zipping through its tracks without the drudgery that musical density or unnecessary flamboyant embellishments can bring. But it also doesn’t inspire much in the way of excitement or leave a lasting impression as it does so, rendering it largely pointless and forgettable.
The best bits come unexpectedly, tucked between less enthralling moments. ‘Get Yourself Together’, which lightly spurs a country tinged dance party, thumbs tucked in belt loops and heels clicking through a piece of infectious, twanging rock. Its neighbour ‘Sit Around And Miss You’ sounds like Auerbach and Carney have been imbibing a lot of early Beatles while longing for the subject of the song and decided to make a homage, while ‘Lo/Hi’ is the closest the Keys come to dangerous. A buzzing, strutting guitar line cuts through the track like a predator menacingly stalking its prey in the dark of night.
But the rest of the album doesn’t match up. ‘Walk Across The Water’ seems intended to be an ultra-romantic ode of the most devoted kind. Auerbach promises he’d “walk across the water for you”, like a hybrid of Romeo and Jesus, but minus the salvation – and if the former was created by The Notebook writer Nicholas Sparks instead of the good bard. It’s schmaltzy and bland, and unlikely to ignite anyone’s fire. On ‘Tell Me Lies’, presumably meant to be the record’s biggest seducer, he purrs, “Burn baby burn”, but sounds like he couldn’t burst into flames if he ran through a bonfire wrapped in petrol-soaked cotton like a human Molotov cocktail. ‘Go’, meanwhile, employs the sounds that made them famous – catchy “Ohh”s, polished rock’n’roll riffs – but ends up sounding like generic indie one hit wonders from the early noughties.
Overthinking might be the enemy of rock’n’rollers everywhere, turning their instinctive licks into convoluted nightmares. But, in the case of ‘Let’s Rock’, a little more time fleshing things out from fine to thunderous could have made a world of difference.
Label: Nonesuch Records
Release date: June 28