Photo: Alysse Gafkjen

The Black Keys Celebrate the Electric Guitar on ‘Let’s Rock’

The Black Keys loudly rock out with Let's Rock, an album celebrating the directness and enjoyment of the electric guitar.

Let's Rock
The Black Keys
Easy Eye Sound / Nonesuch
28 June 2019

When “Lo/Hi” was released as a single in March, it was clear that Dan Auerbach was going to keep his softer vocal style adopted for his new album with the Black Keys. Recorded as an ode to the electric guitar according to Patrick Carney, the Keys’ ninth album, Let’s Rock, accentuates Auerbach’s vocal style from Waiting on a Song (2017) further with louder, dynamic guitar work and Carney’s deliberate and effective drums and percussion. Together Auerbach and Carney have been a strong duo and their work as the Black Keys has consistently delivered soaring 21st-century rock that is retro, DIY, and emblematic of modern marketing tools. Let’s Rock progresses the Black Keys by staying true to Auerbach and Carney’s shared interests while emphasizing their collaborative success and incorporating new influences and styles from solo and side projects.

After a five-year delay following 2014’s Turn Blue, rumors swirled that the duo had a falling out, but as Carney revealed the two simply needed to unwind from years on the road. Both also pursued individual projects: Auerbach formed the Arcs, released a solo album and produced prolifically; Carney recorded the theme song for Netflix’s Bojack Horseman, produced an album with Michelle Branch (and married her earlier this year), and formed Sad Planets with John Petkovic and released Akron, Ohio, an ode to his hometown.

Let’s Rock resulted from those projects, at least in the new ventures and career directions of both Auerbach and Carney. It was recorded at Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound studio in Nashville and was produced only by the two. The album’s sound is similar to their early records but with the production capabilities afforded by their success and craft after eight albums, extensive touring, and “normalcy” as Carney called the last few years.

Auerbach’s vocal style is the most apparent difference for Let’s Rock in comparison to the raw and rougher style he had used on previous efforts. It’s softer, too, and complemented by loud and distinctive guitar across the entire record. Opening track “Shine a Little Light” blasts a bombastic and sweltering guitar performance, and cuts like “Sit Around and Miss You” and “Breaking Down” feature distinctive and 1970s-esque jangly guitar parts that simplify the overproduction of albums like Turn Blue to highlight the musicianship and rock the Black Keys celebrate with Let’s Rock.

The third single “Go” is built around a grungy guitar performance and riffs, and its music video pokes fun at the supposed rift that existed between Carney and Auerbach. A psychiatrist abruptly tells Auerbach and Carney they “at the Black Keys goddammit, America’s sweetheart”, telling them all they have to do is “talk”. It’s a subtle nod that may only reference the rumored rift between the two, but after listening to Let’s Rock it could also be a reference to the simplicity of the album and its directness in the lyrics and music.

The album’s focus on simplicity, with guitar and drums out front, offers a groovy and moody tracklist altogether, and a feeling of love for their music and their friendship between Auerbach and Carney. “Walk Across the Water” carries this theme of love and support strongly, albeit without necessarily pointing at the camaraderie and collaboration of the duo. Alternatively, “Under the Gun” exudes solitude and running from pressure, an admission of the duo’s frenetic career over the past two decades?

Let’s Rock is a brisk 39 minutes and closes emphatically with “Fire Walk With Me”, a track that admits to being tired and confronting external pressure. That notion of external pressure is a looser theme across the tracks, featured most prominently on “Every Little Thing”, where Auerbach’s lyrics warn against actions you wouldn’t want turning back on you. One of the strongest aspects of Let’s Rock is how it grows with repeated listens, closer “Fire Walk With Me” turns back into opener “Shine a Little Light” nicely. Repeated listening is a benefit from Let’s Rock, and the band’s promotion that it includes 12 gems is less of a boast when you revisit the album repeatedly.

The album’s style initially seems to steer starkly away from the band’s catalog, particularly in returning to the Black Keys’ DIY and self-production ethos. That’s where its “gems” lay, by returning to their stylistic roots and incorporating recent projects and efforts, the Black Keys have delivered on the album’s promise and in review, this is a strong rock album: lyrically moody and musically loud.

RATING 7 / 10