The new Black Keys album, Let’s Rock, is their first in a decade without Danger Mouse behind the board. For four straight records, the noted studio maestro named after a cartoon rodent spy served as producer or co-producer for the Black Keys, working with guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney to give their bluesy rock ‘n’ roll a sheen of hard candy modernity. Initially the approach took the duo a little too far away from their foundation (I think most agree Attack & Release, the Black Keys’ first collaboration with Danger Mouse, is among the weakest albums in the band’s catalog), but eventually it clearly strengthened the musical output, eliding the slip into redundancy that can so easily cause retro rock acts to stumble. The Black Keys found a way to stay current without sacrificing their core.
Fruitful as the collaboration clearly was, Let’s Rock is an assertion of independence. Auerbach and Carney are the only producers listed for the album, and it’s officially stamped as a release on Easy Eye Sound, the shingle connected to Auerbach’s Nashville studio of the same name. (Nonesuch, the band’s label since 2006’s Magic Potion, distributes the album.) They haven’t exactly gone back to basics, though. They’ll probably never again approach the chainsaw fury of early efforts Thickfreakness and Rubber Factory. Instead, there’s a confident groove to Let’s Rock that indicates a band settling into a comfortable — if still tougher-than-the-rest — middle age. The track “Sit Around and Miss You” is even like one of those mid-career Paul McCartney songs, when everyone he wrote was seemingly meant to be played on someone’s well-appointed porch in the mid-evening light.
The filthy guitar licks and the thrilling thunder of drums are still present, and they can stir the same old happy shudders. The expansive “Lo/Hi” is quintessential Black Keys, buzzing and quivering like blown out speakers. That familiar expertise contrasts agreeably with some of the more restrained playing, such as “Walk Across the Water,” which almost has a Wilco vibe. And “Get Yourself Together” employs a shuffling beat to come across like an easygoing “Lonely Boy.”
The Black Keys are coming up on twenty years as a going concern, and they’ve long since proven they can rattle walls with the best of them. Let’s Rock feels to me like a statement of permanence. I can imagine the duo dropping a dozen more albums almost exactly like this one over the next couple decades, and having every last one of them sound great. None of the rest would be called Let’s Rock, of course, but I’d wager the successors will largely live up to the battle cry and the promise of that title.