The Black Keys are back. Five years may not be a ridiculous absence for some bands, but Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach were everywhere in the beginning of the decade. Three career-changing records over four years vaulted the band into the elite tier of music acts. The ensuing half-decade turned out to be a long time for album number nine to come to fruition: The Black Keys’ Let’s Rock.
When listening to the early singles of Let’s Rock, it was obvious that the hiatus was a blessing in disguise. The Black Keys were the biggest band in the world for a solid stretch of time. Multiple demographics and age levels enjoy them. Parents, record junkies, and teens appreciate their garage rock at a level rare in contemporary music. No one asked for less Black Keys. In hindsight, the new album sounds recharged and their time away makes sense.
The Black Keys Rewind
After four years of making niche-appreciated (but not commercially noteworthy records), the band broke through in 2008. With Attack & Release, The Black Keys collaborated with producer Danger Mouse and finally sniffed wider recognition. The change in fortune cemented on the next record.
The duo used drummer Patrick Carney’s divorce as fuel for “Next Girl” and cut Brothers in short order. Led by “Tighten Up,” Brothers was a force that could not be ignored in 2010. Black Keys songs were all over the radio, TV, and movie trailers. They doubled-down by releasing El Camino in 2011. With “Lonely Boy,” “Gold On The Ceiling,” and “Little Black Submarine,” the band was in with Foo Fighters and The Killers as generational bands.
The next record was the only indicator that The Black Keys needed a break. In 2014, they ventured into a different brand of artistry with Turn Blue. Turn Blue was an effort to make something different than radio hits. The LP was more artistically-minded. It resulted in a good record. It did not capture the popular consciousness like El Camino and Brothers.
Perhaps the band felt stale. Maybe the audience needed a break as well. Fast forward to 2019. Despite the lack of new Black Keys music, the pair had not entirely gone away. Dan Auerbach made solo albums. Patrick Carney scored Bojack Horseman and married and toured with Michelle Branch. Both also produced a fair share of records for other artists.
The Return Of The Black Keys
The band sounds re-energized on Let’s Rock. Whether this comes from collaborating with other artists or recharged batteries, the record is an improvement on what Turn Blue tried to be. It is a slicker take on their style without departing from what makes The Black Keys great: intimate rock that sounds great in stadiums.
The album has less of a blues influence than other Black Keys music. It is just loud, thrilling, no-frills rock that belongs on FM radio.
These are different Black Keys songs than when they first started. The album is more formulaic. Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach have an idea of what makes their sound appeal to the masses. No song on Let’s Rock surpasses four minutes.
The bulk of Let’s Rock tracks are catchy, quick hit pieces that follow the “Lonely Boy” model. The vocals, however, are more polished than usual. There is some experimentation. For the most part these are the same type of songs that are catchy and are already classic Black Keys songs.
Black Keys Let’s Rock Review
Shine A Little Light
You can hear the band’s absence and tour-de-force renewal in the first thirty seconds of Let It Rock. A simple guitar instrumental and beat coil as if to hold back the audience just a little longer. Five years wasn’t enough. A little feedback. Catchy-as hell-guitar riffs and head-bobbing rhythm. The Black Keys are finally back.
The Black Keys are not ones for lengthy solos. A half-minute of buildup is their “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” The building guitars and drums create excitement to hear what Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are about to unleash. As I wait, the five-year absence truly kicks in. Even if I did not realize it. I missed new music from The Black Keys.
What follows is awesome. Auerbach croons “Do you feel like you’re the only one living on a prayer? Have you ever tried to love someone who wasn’t even there? No one really no knows where it goes from here, but we all decompose… and slowly disappear.”
The aforementioned guitars and drums return. The band continues to play the garage rock. There is a maturation and polish to Auerbach’s voice that adds mystery to the song. The new tact makes “Shine A Light” one of the most original Black Keys songs yet. It is an indication that there is great music ahead. Let’s Rock was worth the wait.
After the briefly epic “Shine A Little Light,” the band follows with the fuzzy, quick “Eagle Birds.” Dan Auerbach strums a great blues riff in the middle of the track to break up the fuzz. There is a hint of feedback before the song ends. The bit gives a little basement authenticity as the album segues into the next song.
The debut of the first single from Let’s Rock was quite the sensation. Three different radio stations played it during my morning commute. I remember that because I just missed the song on all three plays and a DJ talked about how it sounded like Norman Greenbaum.
When I finally caught up with the song nine hours later, I found a vague “Spirit In The Sky” influence. What stands out about “Lo/Hi” is not the guitars, but the crashing cymbals on each chorus. Patrick Carney often holds back as he accompanies Dan Auerbach’s vocals. He announces his presence with authority on this one.
Walk Across The Water
As close as The Black Keys will come to crafting a slow dance song, “Walk Across The Water” shows off their sonic limitations. They are at their best when they discharge hell, whether that be a catchy single or lo-fi jam. A slower tempo with a swaying beat is not in the band’s wheelhouse. Grade school mixers are not exactly in line with the record’s vision:
“We got together in the studio and it was like it was already agreed upon, but we hadn’t even spoken about it: It was just going to be a guitar and drums record.”
Tell Me Lies
The Black Keys have a straightforward studio approach that lacks the production tricks of similar A-listers. Their simplicity is a strength that comes out in their best hits. It reveals itself as a flaw in their B-sides. “Tell Me Lies” is a filler track that lacks lyrical depth or noteworthy hooks. Had The Black Keys left “Walk Across The Water” and “Tell Me Lies” off the twelve-song LP, Let’s Rock would be one of their most consistent albums.
Every Little Thing
The biggest indication of how The Black Keys changed comes on songs like “Every Little Thing.” Even though their garage rock is the essentially same, there is more polish to ditties like this one. What would be a melting indie band jam is now a much more produced number that fits alongside their singles.
Get Yourself Together
The longest song on Let’s Rock, “Get Yourself Together” runs three minutes and fifty-six seconds long. The toe-tapper is a fantastic mid-record track and is one of the catchiest on the album. Like “Every Little Thing,” “Get Yourself Together” shows off the band’s increasing pop sensibility. Even a protracted track is a snug number that sits under four minutes and incorporates a snappy beat from Patrick Carney.
Sit Around And Miss You
A noticeable big break from the traditional Black Keys sound, this track is more of a singer-songwriter effort. “Sit Around And Miss You” is the song most directly tied to their hiatus for reasons beyond the title. It brings to mind Dan Auerbach’s solo material. The switch to folk rock is a welcome expansion of the band’s sound (much better than “Walk Across The Water”). They will likely never abandon blues rock, but this potential new direction is great pop that complements the band’s natural sound.
Along with “Shine A Little Light,” “Go” is my co-favorite song on Let’s Rock. “Go” is a pop rock tune that gives the album a refined Sixties California flair. The video for “Go” is a hysterical response from the band as they jab at rumors surrounding their hiatus.
Another example of The Black Keys newfound sophistication, “Breaking Down” surprises with lush backing vocals. The typical tight Auerbach solo and Carney drum beat are there. The layered vocals on the chorus stop the song from sounding like it came from a basement. Many of the tracks on Let’s Rock are a new direction. Unlike Turn Blue, songs like “Breaking Down” cling closer to the band’s brand and are more adaptable to larger audiences.
Under The Gun
The shift from blues riffs to FM-savvy B-sides continues deep into the record. Track #11 begins with an allusion to Free’s “Alright Now” before shifting to a pop-minded verse/chorus rhythm. “Under The Gun” is a great Black Keys deep cut.
Fire Walk With Me
Dan Auerbach’s lyrics rarely reference pop-culture. Most Black Keys tracks are quick hits that tell direct stories. The last song on Let’s Rock drops an unexpected Twin Peaks reference:
“Living in a fever dream, feeling that fire walk with me.”
The lyrics allude to a poem mentioned in the television show. While the band has said that the record title is not a Twin Peaks nod, the phrase “Let’s rock” was coincidentally a line from the show’s character Dale Cooper.