It’s been a steady rise to the top, but the release of El Camino may finally put the Black Keys in the plush and padded golden throne they’ve been deserving of for the better part of the last decade. As they’ve grown they’ve barely let go of even one fan, and at this point they’ve captured so many ears it’s impossible to ignore them. But why would you want to? Their sound still holds the purity, the grunge, and the heartfelt decadent pounding it did on their first albums, but it’s evolved into a blistering machine that destroys foundations with nearly every note. If they weren’t already, they’re now surely at the forefront of modern rock and roll right alongside Jack White and Wilco.
Capitalizing on the success of 2010’s soulful and grooving Brothers with a monstrous rock album is nearly the perfect formula, and it’s plain to see that their collaborations with producer Danger Mouse are, too. It worked on 2008’s Attack & Release and it works again now. The barebones guitar and drums provided by the Keys is what drives the album, but Mouse’s additional production is what gives the machine its power. Every track from the opening “Lonely Boy” to the final, hanging note of “Mind Eraser” roars nonstop. Even the sole acoustic track on the disc, “Little Black Submarines” — which begins quietly, an acoustic guitar accompanying Dan Auerbach’s unfiltered voice — ends in thunderous electricity.
The louder, more punchy song structure is a good fit as the Black Keys start their first tour of major U.S. arenas in March, beginning in their home state of Ohio and ending in North Carolina with stops in Chicago and at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Not that they’d have trouble filling the space with their old material as the Keys have attracted huge numbers at major festivals and have been bursting eardrums for a few years now. It’s more likely that they’ll settle nicely into the larger rooms and find a way to make the notes that need to be held resonate to even the seats in the nosebleed sections.
The opening track on El Camino is the already familiar “Lonely Boy”, which was released via viral video in November. The truth is that any song on the album could have served the same purpose as “Lonely Boy”: they are all at the similar caliber of punching and anthemic. It’s not unlikely that the single was chosen by just hitting play on the finished album and saying, “Yeah, that one,” but it fits the bill because it’s a bit more memorable than some of the others. The only thing the song is missing is a shattering guitar solo, but it’s not absolutely necessary thanks to the biting rhythm part and the thumping drums of Patrick Carney.
The feeling of familiarity that “Lonely Boy” brings is not new to the Keys though. They’ve always had a knack for making you think they’ve been around the block a few times. Even on their first few albums around the turn of the century, their ’70s-era musical reminiscence set them apart from the flashy pop music on the radio. Here, they’ve found a touchy balance between the modern century and that roots rock and roll. They’ve got one foot in each era but just a slight shift of weight and the Keys might decide to jump head first in either direction. “Money Maker” stands just about in 1995 but parts of “Nova Baby” could have been written in 1965, and others just last week. The lyrics of “Little Black Submarines” speak a line so true it’s as if it’s been part of our collective unconscious for years, but it just took Dan Auerbach to bring it out. The line is simple but crushingly true, sung over a “Stairway to Heaven”-esque progression: “I should have seen it glow, but everybody knows that a broken heart is blind.” That line rings in your head for hours after the album even finishes, even as it’s crushed into furious oblivion just as Jimmy Page would have asked.
But the brilliance of El Camino lies in the fact that it is still perfectly modern, a step in the direction of legitimizing the use of vocal effects, multi-tracking and ultimately catchy choruses — practices that have previously and quite often been shunned by the indie rock community, but that will undoubtedly have to become more accepted now. Meanwhile, the Black Keys continue to stand directly on the border dividing that indie rock community and the big hit radio listeners. Playing this album and last year’s Brothers in succession will show you a band capable and striving not only to reach in different directions, but also surefooted enough to take risks of all sorts, confident that those decisions will pay off in the end. It’s pretty much impossible not to find something you like about this band, and whether this is their best album or not, or even if it’s not your favorite album of theirs is not necessarily the point. The point is that the Black Keys are only gaining steam, and the engine is getting more powerful with each turn.