Get ready, folks. This one’s gonna be a doozy.
I never thought I would write something like this. Especially not about one of my presumed favorite bands. For years, I have called myself a Black Keys fan. After listening to El Camino again in 2021, I had an existential crisis as a fan and asked myself–are they still a good band? Everything I thought I knew and felt about the band seemed to be a lie. I listened to some of their older albums to confirm my original bias that they were indeed a good band. Instead, I walked away, confused, asking myself, “Were they ever good?”
Let’s go on a journey, my friends, to see if we can answer that question.
I’ve never claimed to be objective, but I try my best to not let my experience and taste color my analysis and critique. Inevitably, we listen to music with a bias though. I don’t know how real music critics or professionals can be un-biased. Sure, you can describe something technically or grade it against a rubric. Ultimately, when judging something good or bad, you’re going to use your own personal influence, even if you use objective criteria to back it up.
Welcome to commentary and reviews! Using objective criteria to backup opinions!
I’ll give some context for the ensuing op-ed you’re about to read:
I became a fan of the Black Keys many years ago when I heard the song “Thickfreakness” , but had no idea who sang it, or even the name of it. It got stuck in my head, or at least, the lyrics I made up to it were stuck in my head–“There’s no cure for you”. I couldn’t find it on Google or YouTube, although they were far less than the powerhouses they are today at searching lyric fragments. (The correct lyric is “and I’ll care for you”, by the way. I liked my interpretation better.) Eventually, I found the song one day by mere chance, while working in the music department at Barnes and Noble. I was so happy, I bought the whole album.
The problem with becoming a Black Keys fan this way was 1) I was 18 and inexperienced and only liked fuzzy, distorted, crunchy alt-rock, bluesy-tinged music, and 2) none of the other Black Keys albums sounded like this.
I’m exaggerating, but only a little.
Dan Auerbach and Patrick Casey burst onto the scene at the peak of the early-2000s garage rock revival. Thickfreakness was their second album and it hit all the right gritty, grungy, guitar-pickin’, big riff lickin’ spots. Though I liked their other early releases, The Big Come Up, Rubber Factory, and Chulahoma, none of them connected with me quite like Thickfreakness. Maybe that’s where the curse started. I was never going to find anything in their discography that hit me quite the way that album did.
Nonetheless, with each subsequent album release, I kept waiting for them to return to form. “Form”, in this sense, meant back to the blues/alt rock I knew them for. I may not have loved The Big Come Up or Rubber Factory as much as Thickfreakness, but they were definitively blues. After I became a fan, all their releases were still labeled as alt rock, but I saw the Keys as mostly genre-less. It wasn’t a good thing. Wandering melodies, ugly instrumentation composition, awful hooks–a lot of poor decisions, even on good songs. I don’t even know what they were going for besides quirky indie/alt-rock band uses a bunch of different instruments and gimmicks to create an uninspired mess with some cool moments.
I should be fair though: the Keys have had some downright bangers in the past 15 years. “She’s Long Gone”, “Gold on the Ceiling”, “I Got Mine”–just a few of their best ones off the top of my head. In fact, maybe I am being entirely too hard on them and expecting them to be the 2003 Black Keys in 2021.
The only way I know how to definitely arrive at any conclusion though is intense, methodical analysis that is ultimately overkill and completely unnecessary. But, that’s what this blog is for! So, to find out if the Black Keys are actually good, I’m going to go through, album-by-album, and dissect them to see what went right (or wrong). Starting with where I personally noticed the shift, Magic Potion…
Magic Potion (2006)
Best songs: “Your Touch”…that’s it.
Worst songs: “Just a Little Heat”, “Give Your Heart Away”
Overall: Make no mistake. Just because every other song besides “Your Touch” isn’t listed on “Worst Songs” doesn’t mean they’re not awful. I just picked the two most skippable songs. This album plods along, like it just hates having to be made the way you hate having to listen to it. What used to be dirty, crunchy guitar riffs now just sound like sludge. Dan’s wailing vocals are hard to enjoy a generous 80% of the time. The album also suffers from weak melodies, weird rhythmic choices, and just overall poor musical construction. I can’t believe they listened to this and thought, “yeah, this is good enough to release to the public”.
Attack & Release (2008)
Best songs: “All You Ever Wanted”, “I Got Mine”, “Psychotic Girl”, “Lies”
Worst songs: “Remember When” (Side A), “So He Won’t Break”
Overall: It’s not the return to bluesy-rock form I wanted when it came out, but the album is far more palatable than its predecessor. In fact, the album is pretty good as a whole. The melodies and riffs are mostly fantastic. The songs sound like professional musicians composed them. It does what their previous albums never tried to do: have some depth and variety. Some of the tracks are moody and dark; others are catchy and happy. It has so many good things about it, so it must be a great album, right? But then I still had to ask myself: is this album actually great or is it great in the context of the Black Keys’ discography? Oof. If you have to ask, you already know.
Best songs: “She’s Long Gone”, “Howlin’ For You”, “Black Mud”, “Sinister Kid”
Worst songs: “Everlasting Light”, “Next Girl”, “The Only One”, “Too Afraid to Love You”
Overall: The best songs on this album are some of the Black Keys best songs of all-time. Even some of the A-Tier songs (the great, not perfect, tier), like “Tighten Up” and “Go Getter” are incredibly strong. Crunchy, fuzzy retro garage rock makes a comeback. It’s not as bluesy, but it’s undeniably alt rock, retro, creamy goodness. This is may be their best album since Thickfreakness. That was my first impression in listening specifically for this article. The lows are really low though, and it makes me wonder how they are the same band.
El Camino (2011)
Best songs: “Lonely Boy”, “Gold on the Ceiling”, “Little Black Submarine”, “Run Right Back”
Worst songs: “Dead and Gone”, “Nova Baby”
Overall: I guess the Keys still had something left in the tank after Brothers’ release, so they made El Camino the next year. It’s a good thing they did. From a technical standpoint, I would say this album is even better than Brothers because the low points are not very low at all. I may not love “Dead and Gone” or “Nova Baby”, but they’re at least 2 tiers above any of the garbage that I hated on Brothers. I like the overall sound and experience of Brothers better as a unit, but El Camino is more evenly good. It’s great songs are also some of the band’s greatest . Plus, songs like “Sister” and “Little Black Submarine” seem to at least try to be about something.
Turn Blue (2014)
Best songs: “Weight of Love”, “Fever”, “It’s Up to You Now” (for the solo), “10 Lovers”, “In Our Prime”
Worst songs: “In Time”, “Year in Review”
Overall: This is like the Magic Potion of the band’s modern era. It’s fairly experimental-sounding compared to their usual blues rock-tinged, gritty brand of alt rock. It’s miles better than Magic Potion, but I think a fresh turd is better than fucking Magic Potion. I appreciate that it’s different and takes risks, plus a lot of fresh, funky bass lines keep it grounded in familiar Black Keys territory. However, these “best” songs are only the best on the album. They’re mostly just good for what they are and can be easily forgotten in the grand scheme of things, except for the exceptional “Weight of Love”.
“Let’s Rock” (2019)
Best songs: “Shine A Little Light”, “Eagle Birds”, “Tell Me Lies”, “Every Little Thing”, “Go”
Worst songs: “Sit Around and Miss You”, “Walk Across the Water”
Overall: In many ways, this album reminds me a lot of Thickfreakness. It has a clear motif throughout, sharing musical themes and stylings. This uniformity functions as a “rising tide lifts all boats” kind of thing, so that even the worst two songs are redeemable. Calling them the worst is really just relative for a frame of reference. Dan’s voice is subdued and distorted so much that it barely sounds like him (and that is a compliment, make no mistake). By all technical standards, it’s a tightly produced record and makes for a pretty good soundtrack for driving around. So why don’t I love it? I don’t fucking know. That’s my entire problem with this band, and this album sums it up perfectly–they walk the line between gods of alt rock and inoffensive, unmemorable bullshit a little too well.
As an aside…
I have to add a whole two additional paragraphs to say this album in particular nearly broke me. I had to walk away from this for a few months because I listened to it so much that I got sick of it and this article. I listened to this album more than any other this year, by far. I’m mad at what my Spotify Wrapped will look like (the Year in Review stats about what you listened to). I just couldn’t figure out how I felt about it. An obviously good record in so many technical, tangible categories, yet I couldn’t love it or fully say that it was great without feeling like I was lying.
Then, something weird happened. I got a few of the songs stuck in my head after coming back to it. I willingly chose to listen to it in the car, not to study it for the blog, and it was way more fun and enjoyable. It sucks that it took this long, this much space, and a near musical mental breakdown for me to figure out that I do like the album. I don’t think that’s what they were going for and I don’t think it should take that long to sort out your feelings for an album. It undeniably has grown on me to the point where I have positive, warm feelings for many of the tracks, if not most of them. For the new Keys’ sound, I think it sets a good standard. She said, finally, after 3 months away from this article and being driven to the brink of insanity.
Delta Kream (2021)
I have listened to this, but in the essence of getting this behemoth of a post done, I am not analyzing it. It’s a bunch of cover songs, i.e. Chulahoma. Like that album and many of their others, Delta Kream is okay, but not mindblowing or breaking any new ground.
Re-Visiting the Golden Era (The Big Come Up, Thickfreakness, Rubber Factory)
Was the definitive (in my opinion) Black Keys album actually that great? Or was I blinded by my own one-dimensional tastes at the time, thus cementing its status in my memory, with Nostalgia as witness?
And for perspective, I also want to do a quick look at the other two albums from this early Black Keys era before they went and Magic Potioned themselves.
The Big Come Up (2002)
Best songs: “Do The Rump”, “Heavy Soul”, “She Said, She Said”
Worst songs: “Yearnin”, “240 Years After Your Time” (not even a song)
Overall: I feel like their early albums were just them impersonating their favorite blues musicians but with a distorted guitar and punchier drums. I see nothing wrong with this, either. It’s just hard to keep up for so long, and I don’t blame them for going another direction. It was fun and refreshing for the time, which was in a garage rock revival period, but re-listening in 2021 is worth doing once. I’m starting to think 18-year-old me was the problem.
Best songs: “Thickfreakness”, “Hard Row”, “Midnight in Her Eyes”, “Have Love Will Travel”, “Hurt Like Mine” “If You See Me” — okay, so, basically the whole album.
Worst songs: “I Cry Alone”
Overall: My first impression upon re-listening after so long was that I forgot how similar all the songs were. Gritty, distorted, retro garage rock was still young and this album embraced it. Dan’s voice sounds like gravel, which is an incredible improvement compared to the other ones we’ve dissected in the later era of the Keys. The riffs, melodies, and song structures are similar to one another and lyrics are indecipherable and meaningless, as always.
In some senses, it’s a one-note album that does one thing incredibly well. In another, perhaps more important sense, it’s way fucking better than anything they’ve ever done. Maybe 33-year-old me is the problem. I will die on this hill, but I’m afraid I’m the only one standing up here. Eh, I guess I don’t have to die then? What the fuck. I’m terrible at metaphors. Anyway, they sound earnest and raw, even on songs that aren’t my favorites, like “Everywhere I Go” and “No Trust”. It makes it impossible to dislike those songs because I hear how eager and intentional and passionate it sounds.
There’s something familiar and comforting about each track having a similar theme and setup. It doesn’t feel tired or boring or right on the brink of being forgettable and great, like many other albums. This one has gusto and moxie–and the whole album clocks in at a tight 38 minutes and 44 seconds. There don’t seem to be any wasted moments. If it’s one-dimensional, it’s doing that single dimension really well.
Rubber Factory (2004)
Best songs: “When the Lights Go Out”, “10 AM Automatic”, “Just Couldn’t Tie Me Down”, “Grown So Ugly”, “Stackshot Billy”
Worst songs: “The Lengths”
Overall: Listening to this again after so long reminded me just how amazing it is. Back then, I listened to it a lot and did enjoy it, but Thickfreakness was always my favorite and I never understood why Rubber Factory got more accolades and attention. Now I understand. I may even go as far to say that this is their best ever album and dare I suggest, my new personal favorite. It’s retro rock, glorious blues alt goodness, but it’s varied and has depth. Not that it’s predecessors had none, but The Big Come Up is incredibly one-dimensional in a bad way and Thickfreakness is one-dimensional in a good way. The depth, enthusiasm, variety, and overall pure strength that Rubber Factory harnesses puts it well above most of the band’s discography. Maybe at the very top.
So, Are The Black Keys Good or Not?
I have listened to all their albums multiple times. In the case of “Let’s Rock“, I listened to it until it broke me and stalled this article
I have listened to this band in the background, while I work.
I have listened to this band more actively, with a discerning ear.
I’ve consulted a shaman, a priest, and a therapist. I read the stars and the cards.
And I definitely don’t want to know how many damn hours I put into listening to them overall.
I’ve asked into the void: Are the Black Keys any fucking good?
The void answered back a resounding… “yeah, kinda”.
All my favorite songs have some punch to them. They’re fun, with a clear and straightforward melody, beat, and function. They’re not necessarily about anything, but they’re memorable and great on their own. Some of those songs put me in a great mood or make for good “hype up” music. They excel in playlists.
I find myself disliking them from album-to-album though, when I listen to all their songs at once. Listening to multiple albums a day, multiple times was not a good way to approach a magnum opus of this nature. I had to space it out the writing/listening sessions, come back to it, and figure this all out over the course of months. Seriously, I started this in May 2021.
Ultimately, it is simple as this: I find the band way more likable in small doses. When I can pepper their songs into a playlist, I love the Black Keys. When I listen to an entire album, I am less sure that I even like the band at all. I find myself often bored with this genre though and listen to it in bursts anyway. Perhaps no band could escape that sort of sentencing.
Except, that’s not true. The Raconteurs, another band I am quite familiar with, is listed as one of the Top 5 similar artists on the Black Keys’ Spotify page. The Raconteurs absolutely escape the sentence of being boring in the alt-rock/blues-rock/retro genre. I’ve never questioned their passion, artistic vision, or ability.
The Black Keys lack passion. They lack vision. They’re not untalented, but they sure channel their skills in weird ways that don’t translate for me in their post Rubber Factory days, except for the odd exception here and there. Listening to them often feels like an exercise in patience.
To dive a bit deeper, another big complaint I have is, generally speaking, their lyrics are not good. That’s quite an accusation, but it’s strange that they don’t even accidentally write anything really good or interesting. Just the occasional well-written phrase or okay story. It’s not that I think all music needs to say something though. The difference is that if you’re not going to say anything, at least make it worth listening to. See “Sunday Driver” on this review for a prime example. Plus, I love vapid pop music. I’m not above a meaningless, fun song. But the Black Keys just aren’t fun most of the time.
After all these years, I am also coming to terms with the long-denied opinion that I’m just not a fan of Dan’s voice. This surprises me more than anyone. I realized that on all my favorite songs, his vocals are either heavily distorted behind a gritty, muddy filter or he sounds subdued and unintrusive to the track. Without this buffer, he becomes obnoxious and grating. Is that a goat bleating? No, that’s just Dan’s insufferable warble trying to do a vocal run. I found in my album dissections that all the worst, trash-tier songs were the ones where Dan’s wail and warble were just downright oppressive. On a side note, Wail & Warble would make a great Keys’ album title.
So, yeah, the verdict stands. The Black Keys are sometimes good. They need playlists and buffers to be their best. Vocal filters and distortion are a must. Besides the few great songs they crank out each album (and let’s be honest, those songs all follow the same formula), they’re mostly just a tolerable, middle-of-the-road band in the alt-rock genre. They’re an acceptable, high-priced, craft IPA that all your friends rave about, but doesn’t taste that good. You drink it to seem cultured. It’s okay, not great. It’ll get the job done and get you wasted, but it’s not going to be your favorite. I would honestly rather listen to Nickelback–and that’s not a dig at Nickelback. They make fun, catchy music. They know who they are, and they have fun doing it.
There’s something to be said about knowing who you are.
I know who I am. I’m a Black Keys fan. Eh, kinda.