The Lowdown: For the duo’s earliest adopters, it’s been a while since The Black Keys have sounded like The Black Keys. The days of slinging grimy garage blues on the cheap are long behind Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, who have instead spent the better part of the past decade fleshing out and polishing up their sound to massive mainstream rewards. But the decision to title their latest release “Let’s Rock” appeared to suggest the Keys have arrived at the back-to-basics stage of their career arc. Instead, their ninth record meets one bar while falling notably short of another. It’s a rock record by any stretch of the definition, but a far cry from the duo’s raunchy days in the Rubber Factory.
The Good: The Black Keys have evolved into modern-day masters of classic rock and roll. Auerbach’s as good at turning crunchy, blues-flavored guitar licks as anyone, and “Let’s Rock” has them by the armful. Much of the record feels like a testament to ZZ Top, Mountain, and other ’70s classic rock staples, and there isn’t a track where Auerbach’s guitar isn’t let off its leash. From the brawny opening track, “Shine a Little Light”, to the feel-good boogie rock of “Tell Me Lies” and “Get Yourself Together” to songs that mash up Creedence with ’70s AM pop (“Sit Around and Miss You”), Auerbach and Carney dish out a record that stylishly fetishizes rock music’s golden age.
The Bad: Minus the services of Danger Mouse for the first time since 2006’s Magic Potion, there was enough reason to believe that Auerbach and Carney, left to their own devices, might retreat all the way back to roughshod simplicity. But fans looking for that rawness won’t find it here. Guitars and drums do much of the heavy lifting on “Let’s Rock”, but it’s still a fat, full-bodied record with plenty of bells and whistles, from female backup vocals to ample studio flourishes. That’s not a criticism in itself, but to enjoy “Let’s Rock” is to strap on headphones with proper expectations. Anyone expecting the duo to go back to where they began musically likely will feel short-changed. A few tracks, namely “Go”, come within striking distance of the band’s early sound, but this isn’t 2004.
The Verdict: If nothing else, “Let’s Rock” sounds destined to maintain The Black Keys’ standing as today’s Top 40 rock and roll kings. The duo’s latest is a layered, well-orchestrated affair, and as long as you’re willing to let go of any hope of a return to those lean and mean Thickfreakness days, “Let’s Rock” won’t disappoint. It’s as good a rock record as The Black Keys have in them in 2019, and odds are that will satisfy most fans.
Essential Tracks: “Shine a Little Light”, “Sit Around and Miss You”