The Black Keys – El Camino
Earlier in the year I asked a friend what she thought of The Black Keys and she said “I liked the one album I listened to, but I don’t really need to hear anymore.” I shared the sentiment; between the Keys, The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and the then recently-deceased White Stripes whose breakup incurred reminiscent listening, blues-y guitar rock had reached terminal over-saturation, and even though “Tighten Up” and “Howlin’ For You” were remarkably catchy singles, it’d all become too much.
Then more recently I was having a chat to a friend about something unrelated that he’d never heard of and he apologised, saying, “Mate, I live under a rock where nothing gets through but parmas and The Black Keys,” and I thought that sounded lovely. It appealed to the masculine ideal I’d tried so hard to repress into a persona of dandy sophistication but which, due to its unlawfulness in a cultured world where masculine = philistine, tickled the base, cisgendered instincts I’d tightly locked away. Suddenly I was mentally locating the closest vintage store where I could find a denim jacket and imagining myself with a beard so full and luxurious it’d turn the stoniest-faced second-waver into the lusting object of 60s lit-erotica. Of course it’s possible – and firmly encouraged – to enjoy the noise and accoutrement of The Black Keys without diminishing 49% of the world’s population, and if the rest of the night following that conversation was any indication, girls can dance the Derrick T. Tuggle with just as much hip-shaking exuberance as any Lonely Boy.
It really does take a base mentality to appreciate El Camino as it is though, because when you start to think about it, you notice the icky, problematic issues with what The Black Keys peddle: a black guy dancing for a bunch of white dudes playing a style of music rooted in slavery, for example, or the deluge of songs about women who apparently have no personality except for the traits which affect whether Auerbach or Carney are getting laid tonight. Those are staples of the craft, of course, but you’ve got to wonder what’s stopping humanity from creating music that’s both ferociously raw-sounding and conscious of racial and gender politics.
On the first half of that balance, The Black Keys unsurprisingly deliver: on “Money Maker”, Auerbach’s guitar rumbles along to Carney’s cymbal-crashes before slumping into a harmonic warble, and on “Run Right Back” it wails provocatively like the lascivious groin-thrusts of The King himself. El Camino is a thoroughly sexy album: it oozes, it drips, it thrusts; Auerbach’s guitar and Carney’s drumsticks penetrate the ear with their syrup-y hooks, and they waste no time doing it. El Camino is only two-thirds as long as Brothers and more than two-thirds of the tracks are so well-crafted they could be put out as singles as well. What’s more, they stand out from one another. Blues-rock provides only a small palate to play around with but The Black Keys put each shade to use, and the result is interesting enough to be consistently engaging while still so subtle that it doesn’t disrupt the cohesion of their sound.
El Camino finishes with Dan Auerbach crooning “Whoa / Don’t let it be over,” which rings a little cliche but with a grain of relatable truth: it’s hard to stop listening to the album because its rose-tinted, bar-room swing is so impulsively gratifying. It’s filthy and carnal, harkening back to the so-called good ol’ days where the men wore leather and the girls wore summer dresses and everyone knew what was expected of them. All but the most resolute of humans are susceptible to giving into the immediate satisfaction of their baser instincts and it’s that gratification that El Camino sounds like. Because of that it’s hard to unreservedly love The Black Keys, but politics aside, indulging those impulses never sounded so goddamn great.
by Jake Cleland