It was a nice time when The Black Keys weren’t around, wasn’t it? Of course, it’s not like them taking a break brought an end to all of the retro-rock masturbaters (Jack White was still making music in that time, after all), but the brunt of that attack felt a bit less forceful as the embodiment of nostalgic dollar-chasing fell to the wayside when experiments with psychedelic touches on Turn Blue failed to catch fire. At least with that album though, it was easy to commend The Black Keys for actually trying something different; on their later albums especially, very few bands have come across as more workmanlike with less enjoyment for the music they’re making as them. Part of that can be chalked up to Dan Auerbach becoming less and less of a vocal personality as their albums has progressed (as well as seeming much more comfortable producing for other artists in recent times), but just in general, blues-rock and garage-rock as tepid and blatantly backwards-looking as this is virtually impossible to make sound exciting this deep in, and while many view The Black Keys as the saviours of rock just like every other band that refuses to believe that any music existed beyond the mid-‘70s, they’re still not miracle workers, and even they can’t make this utter slog of a sound compelling.
And that all comes neatly to “Let’s Rock”, an album whose title alone already leaves a pretty stark impression with a decent amount to unpack. Sure, it was probably intended to represent the wild, unpredictable rock ‘n’ roll heyday, doubled up by allegedly being the last words of a prison inmate in the electric chair. But when paired with its content though, “Let’s Rock” takes up a far different meaning, instead encapsulating the essence of anachronistic dad-rock that hasn’t aged well in the slightest, yet it’s exactly what The Black Keys insist on plying here. The back-to-basics approach to rock can be enjoyable, that much is certain, but when The Black Keys are currently running on fumes as profusely as they are, and are haemorrhaging entertainment value at such an alarming rate, this “homage to the electric guitar” starts feeling more like an epitaph.
It’s a simple lack of effort more than anything else that makes this such a boneless listen, as well. This is as meat-and-potatoes as rock music comes, stripping down anything that’s not absolutely necessary and relying on a foundational core of guitar, bass, drums and vocals, wrapped in an analogue coat that The Black Keys are clearly using to invoke the sense of their classic rock heroes. The problem is, where those bands had gusto and firepower, and would actually take some chances for the time, “Let’s Rock” sounds so meek and lifeless, afraid to have even one hair out of place lest that sweet radio airtime be ripped from underneath them. It’s perhaps most clear in Auerbach’s vocals, or whatever corpse they decided to reanimate to pose as him given that there’s not an ounce of passion across this entire album, but it doesn’t take much attention being paid to realise how limp so much of this instrumentation is. Even at its most rudimentary, there’s usually some kind of rock-solid riffing present in this kind of blues-rock or garage-rock; with “Let’s Rock” though, from the most basic standpoint of body or even volume, the guitars are so muted and stagnant as they’re left to provide a driving force that’s little more than a brisk stroll. If nothing else, the strut on Lo/Hi and Tell Me Lies that’s clearly come from their Nashville surroundings while recording is a bit more tolerable, simply by virtue of having a little more litheness that admirable, but for as much as a track like Go is trying to hit the mark of hip-swinging classic rock sauciness, it’s so clipped and clandestine that it’s hard to feel much emotion towards it beyond sheer boredom. Even when there’s nothing particularly wrong with the playing – as far as a basic rock template goes, this does the job pretty much across the board – there’s a stiffness to this album that, along with grainy production that simply feels like a slapped-on lo-fi filter over anything meaningfully retro, ends up almost like a parody of itself.
The same could easily be said about the writing as well, though that’s just so deeply uninteresting and unengaging that it so very often brushes at an almost offensive level of tedium. It’s yet another area where the back-to-basics excuse feels ready to be ran into the ground, as a breakup arc is told with nothing close to flavour or distinct flair, to the point where it’s worth wondering whose idea it really was to take all of this beyond a very early draft. Hooks have no qualms in repeating their own basic verbiage whenever they deem necessary like on Tell Me Lies and Go, and even a supposedly more heartfelt turn on Walk Across The Water ends up being not much more than bland blanket assertions with no guts behind them. For an album that so regularly relies on soulful backing singers to make it feel like a semi-finished product, “Let’s Rock” barely ever displays any soul of its own, and it makes this already hollow listen feel even colder and emptier.
And you can tell that The Black Keys were shooting for the exact polar opposite of that, and looking back to a time when rock music was seen as communal and exciting, and when it could really thrive. And yet, for the – to bring up the phrase again – “homage to the electric guitar” that this album supposedly is, it’s hard to think of a time when that particular instrument would be associated with the pale, unwelcome emptiness of this album. Perhaps if you go right back to rock ‘n’ roll’s genesis in the ‘50s, an album with these sorts of simpler, more universal themes would’ve gone down a lot smoother, but in those six decades since where the innovations to creating music have been almost innumerable, something like this has no purpose whatsoever. Even Greta Van Fleet, as eternally shackled to the shadow of Led Zeppelin as they’re doomed to be, do enough with their takes to get people talking; “Let’s Rock” on the other hand, is not only The Black Keys’ worst album by a fairly considerable margin, but perhaps the most pointless retro-rock album ever put to record. People may say that these are the sorts of albums proving that rock isn’t dead, when in truth it’s the total opposite – they’re what’s killing it off.
For fans of: The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘”Let’s Rock”‘ by The Black Keys is out now on Nonesuch Records.