Akron, Ohio’s the Black Keys have always done what they’re good at and are good at what they do. Since The Big Come Up, their debut album in 2002, the twosome have become prolific purveyors of stripped-down blues-rock. They don’t sound remotely tired for a rock duo that started playing over 20 years ago. Although they took a short hiatus after 2014’s Turn Blue, the Black Keys don’t seem to show any signs of stopping. You certainly can’t hear it in their music.
This year marks the release of their 11th album, Dropout Boogie, through longtime label Nonesuch Records in conjunction with guitarist and singer Dan Auerbach’s own Easy Eye Sound. Primarily fashioned in Southern rock jams, Dropout Boogie will make you do what the name suggests: boogie. The album carries as much energy, if not more, than the music they released during their peak popularity. Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have now reached their 40s. However, their music still feels like it comes from the young men who gave us the vibrant blues-rock of 2004’s Rubber Factory and 2006’s Magic Potion.
Auerbach and Carney are humble enough to share their deep respect for their influences despite their fame and fortune – much of it coming from licensing their music for advertising. They aren’t just adding their footprint to the history of blues and soul; they celebrate it. This ties into their copious recorded covers of Mississippi bluesman Junior Kimbrough and other Southern blues musicians on 2006’s Chulahoma and last year’s Delta Kream. It made perfect sense when the band relocated their hometown to Nashville several years ago. They wanted to immerse themselves in the region that cultivated their influences.
Most of Dropout Boogie is ingrained with 1970s southern rock appeal while maintaining the classic Black Keys sound. The Allman Brothers, Molly Hatchet, and ZZ Top come to mind when listening to songs like “Burn the Damn Thing Down”, “Didn’t I Love You”, and “Your Team Is Looking Good”. Billy F Gibbons of ZZ Top features on “Good Love”, which is all the Black Keys need to have the right to make an album of Southern boogie tunes. Dropout Boogie is full of hearty, feel-good songs that make me think of irreverent comedies like The Full Monty or The Commitments or any film featuring ragtag characters trying to get by.
The lead single, “Wild Child”, could fit easily into the band’s most commercially viable albums like 2010’s Brothers and 2011’s El Camino. The chorus is big and energetic, similar to “Howlin’ for You” and “Gold on the Ceiling”, arguably their most popular singles. Auerbach knows how to write a strong chorus, which is evident in every song, particularly “Baby I’m Coming Home”, possibly the most rocking song on the album.
Dropout Boogie contains two tracks that stand out stylistically: “It Ain’t Over” and “How Long”. These songs veer away from southern rock by simmering in 1970s soul. The latter harnesses the spirit of a Marvin Gaye slow jam, swaying with a breezy yet weary melody while incorporating moaning, enervated guitar tones. The former boasts a soulful bassline reminiscent of the Isley Brothers and the Dramatics. In addition, a layer of backup singing adds power to the chorus, giving the song energy as sizable as a live band on a 1970s variety show.
Soul music isn’t new to the Black Keys (see “Never Gonna Give You Up” from Brothers), but this is a style that they should explore more. Imagine three backup singers on stage supporting the band and their touring musicians. It would make for a remarkable live show for Black Keys fans. Also, since Auerbach and Carney are so good at making soul music, an album or EP of nothing but soul songs would be an absolute pleasure.
But making that album would take a different type of ambition and mindset than what they aimed for with Dropout Boogie. Much of the album is made with first takes from their recording sessions to capture the natural chemistry between Auerbach and Carney. And Dropout Boogie certainly carries that honest, organic vitality that has kept the Black Keys going for 20 years as recording artists. If they’re still crafting robust rock music at this point in their career, they won’t be giving up anytime soon.