The Black Keys are done with formalities.
Over the past decade, the Akron, Ohio-based rock duo has won over fans and critics alike with a simple, fail-proof formula: stay light on the sentiment, go heavy on the music and keep it classy.
Indeed, the Keys were never a band for verbosity. Time and time again, singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach has drawled that he’ll be your man, that he’s got his and that you should walk through his door. He has lamented over love gone sour and psychotic girls doing him wrong, and the carefully-paced rhythms of drummer Patrick Carney accompanied his inoffensive blues poetry, sustaining our admiration for a band that managed to spring amid what had lately become a desolate, generic pop assembly line.
But with December of last year came The Black Keys’ seventh album and a new mission to hold no feelings back. El Camino is a far cry from their 2002 debut, The Big Come Up. Their emergence onto the scene as a purist garage band immediately drew comparisons to The White Stripes, but as time passed, the rift between the two sets of duos became more apparent: as the Stripes began sounding more articulate, the Keys started to lose their gentlemanly pretense in exchange for grit.
2010’s Brothers was the Keys’ first real foray into mainstream music with some help from Danger Mouse, a.k.a. Brian Burton, who also worked with the band in 2008’s Attack and Release. The producer has most recently turned heads with his collaboration with The Shins’ James Mercer as The Broken Bells, with his trademark reliance on special effects. But “Tighten Up,” the only track on the album he produced, showcases the impressive restraint he used to preserve the Keys’ unadulterated frankness, with just a few furtive sprinkles of pop pixie dust. Auerbach and Carney were launched into the good graces of TV ads, Saturday Night Live, The Colbert Report, and The Grammys—enough reason to reign in the producer’s talents for their next album.
You may at first be miffed—and annoyed—at the ridiculous insert that goes along with El Camino: it’s just page after page of pictures of different beaten-up minivans. (The one on the cover is actually a facsimile of the band’s first touring vehicle.)
But with the churning first measures of the lead track, “Lonely Boy,” and Auerbach’s profession that he would settle on being your masochistic lover to avoid being alone, the grainy booklet seems perfectly fitting. The Black Keys don’t give a damn about romancing; they just want to seduce you, in the vehicle of your choice.
“Oh, she wants milk and honey / Oh, she wants filthy money,” Auerbach warns at the beginning of “Money Maker” in a slithering moan. The entire song serves as a stern finger-wagging instruction of don’t do as I do, told through alternatingly teasing and desperate vocals and simple chords, ending just as it began—without a resolution. It’s not about the story; the journey lies in feeling what they’re feeling.
While on the subject of femme fatales, “Run Right Back,” likens the object of the Keys’ affection to—what else—a grade-A car: “Finest exterior/ She’s so superior.” It’s hard to fathom that in their 2006 Magic Potion single, “You’re the One,” Auerbach was gazing into his girl’s eyes and recalling his mother’s love for him when he was growing up. But hey, disillusionment bites hard sometimes.
And paranoia’s no better, as reflected in the surreal lyrics and sound of the album’s standout number. “Gold on the Ceiling” sets the whole record ablaze, with spirited handclaps and grinding organs to make for a track that is dripping with raunchiness.
Still, El Camino isn’t a total departure from The Black Keys’ signature sound. “Little Black Submarines” is an abrupt downer as Auerbach once again sings about his blind, broken heart. They make up for the camp when the song picks up speed, but the album could do without it altogether. Likewise, “Nova Baby” doesn’t add much to the set list in terms of originality, instead blending into the background of its superiors.
The Black Keys perform with just the right amount of abandon to get you grooving, without any inkling of mainstream mindlessness in this album. The music still takes precedent over all else, but the lyrics grant the band a long-awaited attitude makeover.
Carney has chopped off his moppy ‘do, and Auerbach’s beard is more coiffed than ever. The Black Keys have dropped their prim courting rituals and have mustered up the courage to ask what drink you’re having. It’d be wise to start flipping through that insert.