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The Black Keys Are Back to “Back to Basics”—and That’s a Good Thing

The duo tightens up and lets it rip on their ninth album

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Rock ’n’ roll will never die, but it ain’t gotta be happy about it. We join the Black Keys—singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney, settled now in Nashville but forever the glowering pride and joy of Akron, Ohio—after a five-year hiatus during which virtually no new challengers emerged, in the realm of arena-worthy American rock bands, unless you count Greta Van Fleet, which, don’t. The duo’s ninth album, released Friday, is called “Let’s Rock,in quotation marks; these were reportedly the last words of convicted murderer Edmund Zagorski, before he was executed via electric chair in a Nashville prison in November 2018. There’s an electric chair on the album cover. It is not clear whether this is meant to be funny, or poignant, or badass, or what. (Probably badass.) The Black Keys have always been hard to read in terms of intent or humor, what with all the glowering.

Is this video funny? I say yes. The Black Keys started out in the early 2000s as bluesy analog throwbacks in an inauthentic digital world; starting with 2008’s Attack & Release, they hooked up with arty superproducer Danger Mouse and got a little fancier and, surprisingly, a whole lot bigger. Legit rock-radio singles, many Grammys, arena tours, myriad feuds with Jack White, much glowering. Even at their warmest and catchiest—the breakout combo of 2010’s Brothers and 2011’s El Camino is festooned with many fine jams—Auerbach and Carney tend to radiate chilliness and grouchiness and haughty unease, a good-time band but unquestionably a tough hang. Their videos are reliably goofy, but you can always feel these fellas gritting their teeth. It’s infectious.

The clip for the “Let’s Rock” track “Go,” then, depicts our heroes moping silently on a therapist’s couch, having not spoken to each other in five years, cheekily overdramatizing a lengthy hiatus caused in reality, the band has said, by simple burnout and touring-overload PTSD. “You are the Black Keys, god dammit,” the therapist protests. “America’s sweethearts.” I laughed.

In the video, the Black Keys are forced by their impatient record label to go on a Midsommar-esque meditation retreat; they take drugs, visualize giant piles of money, and grudgingly reunite. (The band told The New York Times last week that they ultimately refused a $1.5 million payday to headline Woodstock 50, a principled stand and a bullet dodged.) This is all admirably self-aware and not unamusing, but the gulf between funny-in-quotes and actually funny is tough to cross when you’ve got only drums and electric guitar and the unspoken philosophy that true rock ’n’ roll died with the onset of computers.

To be a no-frills rock band in the 21st century is to be an anomaly is to be a throwback is to be a scold is to be presumed humorless. Ask Jack White, whose Wikipedia page has a whole personal-life subcategory for ‘eccentricity’ (in quotation marks), and whose primary post–White Stripes band the Raconteurs put out a spunky new album last month, and who spent this past weekend sassing Spin for, in his view, too credulously reblogging his joke to The Irish Times about that album being delayed because he “started doing heroin.” It is a silly feud from our nation’s preeminent silly-feud connoisseur (White has been sassing the Black Keys for years, though relations have thawed), and it underscores the get-off-my-lawn aura even the titans of modern throwback rock exude even when they’re totally just horsing around, man. You get why they’d conclude that playing it straight is the only option.

Your reward, should your deified American rock band ever make it to the nine-album mark, is that each new record will be glowingly described as “back to basics.” Danger Mouse did excellent work with the Black Keys, loosening them up and expanding their horizons a bit, and he still has his moments even now (Lux Prima, his 2019 album with Karen O, is disarmingly lovely), but it’s also true that everything he touches is more or less run through some sort of tiresome Sgt. Pepper Instagram filter. The last Black Keys album, 2014’s spacey Turn Blue, thusly got a little too transfixed by the whorls of its fingerprints. I miss the band Air, too, guys, but maybe knock it off.

They knocked it off. The self-produced “Let’s Rock” is badass-riff-driven and unfussy, a casual spin of the radio dial in which every station is a slightly gloomier shade of soul-adjacent classic rock. The crunchy “Eagle Birds” for blues purists; the groovy-ish “Lo/Hi” for ZZ Top–style swampiness; the loping folk of “Sit Around and Miss You” for those who wish to be reminded of “Stuck in the Middle With You” for 10 seconds. Auerbach’s guitar solos are underrated. No one spins radio dials anymore, by the way.

I like “Let’s Rock” quite a bit; I have had it on repeat for the past four hours or so, never giving it my full attention, never feeling the urge to turn it off. At first, I kept waiting for it to do something, to mutate in some grandiose fashion, before realizing that I liked it precisely because it wasn’t trying too hard to do much of anything. The vast majority of the Black Keys catalog has been like this: decent to excellent in practice, though often obtuse and maddening in theory. The fellas spent their downtime indulging various side projects (Auerbach’s austere 2017 solo album Waiting on a Song has its detractors) and contributing to various interesting records (Carney both produced a new Michelle Branch album and married her); they are not as rigid and stern and meat-and-potatoes as they continue to nonetheless usually appear.

But meat-and-potatoes rock qualifies, in 2019, as an exotic niche. It could be that what I want from the Black Keys and have never quite sensed from them is actual joy, is an exuberance as pure and classic and untainted as the better-in-the-old-days rock ’n’ roll they’ve long championed. There is a baseline gruffness to these guys that “Let’s Rock” doesn’t so much resolve as gently sidestep. It will probably not convince you that Auerbach and Carney are finally having fun. But you might catch yourself having a muted sort of fun.