As their five-year hiatus comes to a close with ninth studio album ‘Let’s Rock’, there is still much to applaud in The Black Keys’ mastery of guitar music and rock-infused love ballads.
The vacation is over. After a whirlwind streak of eight albums in 13 years, the Black Keys took some well-deserved time off following the release of 2014’s Turn Blue (“I think we just both instinctively knew it was the right time,” lead vocalist Dan Auerbach has explained). Now that family matters and side projects have been tended to, what better way to announce the group’s return to form than to title their comeback record with a simple yet emphatic two-work declaration of their current mindset: let’s rock!
Indeed, the Akron duo’s first full-length in a half-decade is as compulsively rock ‘n roll as anything in their catalogue. Auerbach’s electric guitar shreds through the opening moments of the first track, “Shine a Little Light,” and can still be heard going strong twelve songs later as the record wraps up in the dying moments of “Fire Walk with Me.” In between, Patrick Carney’s drumming proves to be as masterful as ever (shout-outs go to finger-tapping highlights “Go” and “Breaking Down”), while Auerbach lends his familiar, slightly-muffled vocals to a variety of topics.
On “Eagle Birds,” a track that’s every bit as soaring as the title would suggest, the high-flying birds serve as metaphors for love’s vast possibilities. “See twin eagle birds up in the tree, one for you and there’s one for me,” Auerbach sings over some of the strongest guitar displays to be found on “Let’s Rock” — and that’s saying something on a record of this caliber. “When we thought we might be losing our minds, we saw the signs.”
The aviary references continues on the next track and lead single, “Lo/Hi,” as Auerbach remarks how love can make one feel “high like a bird in the sky,” while conversely feeling “low like a valley” in its absence. Maybe not the most exotic lyrical theme, but the song is strengthened by the inclusion of backup singers Leisa Hans and Ashley Wilcoxson, two local talents in Nashville, where Let’s Rock was recorded at the Easy Eye Sound studio.
Speaking of Tennessee, the guys channel Justin Timberlake’s old hit “What Goes Around… Comes Around” on “Every Little Thing,” as they sing, “Every little thing that you do is always going to come right back to you.” Elsewhere, they make the somewhat puzzling invitation for their listeners to “tell me lies… tell me all your pretty lies” and compare love affairs to everything from motorcycles (“We wanna make it run forever, maybe, I’m your gasoline”) to the ocean (“Down around the deep blue sea, me and you together for the longest ride”). Throughout the album, the lyrics are fairly simple in nature but always deftly constructed and supported by strong choruses.
As a standalone record, there is not much substantial criticism to be leveraged at “Let’s Rock”. It’s plainly well-made and musically rich material. Put in conversation with the rest of the Black Keys’ catalogue, and some questions emerge. For instance, given that this is the band’s ninth record, are they now at risk of sounding a touch repetitive, as can happen to many bands who reach such a late stage of their careers? And does the absence of Danger Mouse — the superproducer whom the Black Keys decided to part ways with this time around, after having consistently collaborated with him ever since 2008’s Attack & Release — rob the new record of some of the color and vibrancy of its most recent predecessors?
That much can be left for debate. But the fact that the Black Keys can emerge from a relatively lengthy hiatus and still display such impressive mastery of the instruments and songwriter’s pens in their hands deserve to be highly praised. Let’s Rock is 38 minutes of terrific fun that neither newcomers nor longtime fans of the veteran duo should deny themselves.
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📸 © Alysse Gafkjen