Any Old Way You Choose It: Back to basics with The Black Keys, Titus Andronicus

lets rock

You can’t talk about the state of rock and roll without talking about The Black Keys– a band that bucks every trend, defies every natural law, and does it all with tricks they copped from vintage blues and garage playbooks. Over the last decade, no other guitar rock band has quite matched their bounty of commercial success and critical acclaim; poor Iceage doesn’t have the sales, while much-maligned Greta Van Fleet lags 5.4 points behind on the Pitchfork scale. There are now nine Black Keys albums in the world– a few of them excellent, all of them valuable– and though they vary slightly in terms of how rigidly they stick to the fundamentals, they’re all persuasive that rock’s most appealing when it’s at its most direct and unadorned. 

In a career modeled on a back-to-basics approach, “Let’s Rock” feels like the closest thing the Keys have offered to a reset; their return to recording after a five-year break jettisons the murky psychedelia of Turn Blue as well as the little pockets of glitter that bedazzled El Camino, instead ratifying the enduring pleasure of short-and-fast songs that wail and thump and spin off into dozens upon dozens of earworm guitar riffs, all of them comfortingly familiar and thrillingly off-the-cuff. Only on two of these dozen self-produced songs do Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney approach the four minute mark, and only on “Walk Across the Water” do you get anything that could rightly be called a slow jam; even there, Carney’s drum kit throws a few lumps into the floating disco-ball gait, ensuring some swing in its sway. It’s a particularly unfussy and unpretentious record from a duo that’s seldom let big concepts get in the way of their joyful ruckus, and as such it’s the most endlessly replayable Keys album in a while– a winsome gene splice of Rubber Factory’s chunky, blues-adjacent racket and Brothers’ ragged R&B. 

You could call it a throwback Black Keys record, but to do so ignores some subtle yet substantial leaps forward in their craft; much as they and we might prefer the illusion that these are just two dudes ripping it up in a repurposed Nashville office building, there are multi-layered harmonies and piles of overdubbed riffs hiding just below the crackle of first-take immediacy, adding depth and heft to some of the group’s cleanest writing yet. (Backup singers Ashley Wikcoxzon and Leisa Hans prove themselves mission-critical throughout.) There’s also something to be said for the genre elasticity Auerbach’s forged through his second career as a record producer, which helps explain how “Let’s Rock,” for all the meat-and-potatoes promises of its title, is really a covert exercise in low-key eclecticism; Stephen Thomas Erlewine calls it a “fantasy jukebox,” as good a description as any for an album that moves so swiftly between different flavors of thundering mayhem. “Eagle Birds” is a haywired electric boogie; “Lo/Hi” is a sky-splitting baptism in crackling fuzz; “Sit Around and Miss You” is crinkled country; “Go” stretches a single-syllable vamp into a blast of sing-along power pop. 

Auerbach’s lyrics, always admirable in their concision, mostly hover over matters of love and loss; he’s not too proud to mope (“Sit Around and Miss You” is exactly the kind of song its title promises it’ll be), but just as often he declaims, spinning his lived experience into what sound like weird backwoods proverbs, universal truths expressed through a gnarled vernacular (“every little thing that you do is always gonna come back to you”; “if you wanna make it last forever, maybe get behind the mule”; “don’t nobody wanna be lonely, everybody oughta be loved sometimes”; “no one really knows where it goes from here/ but we all decompose and slowly disappear”). These lyrics aren’t flashy, but they’re honed with precision and effective as a result; perfect tidings from a band whose sweet spot is the intersection of careful craft and disorderly thrills.

They’re not the only band that’s ratifying the fundamentals. An Obelisk, new from Titus Andronicus, is loud, fast, succinct, and electric– all the things the group’s previous record, the divisive acoustic jamboree A Productive Cough, wasn’t. Call it course-correction if you like, though actually, An Obelisk was conceived and written before its predecessor, suggesting the band’s awareness that their hard rock bona fides might need prompt renewal. These 10 new songs fly by in 38 minutes; a leisurely sprawl by hardcore punk standards, but remarkably terse for a band whose stock in trade has always been conceptual epics. They brought in producer Bob Mould, fresh off his own bubbly Sunshine Rock, and he keeps things down and dirty: This is a record that takes all its cues from classic punk albums, the clack of drumsticks counting down choppy riffs and Patrick Stickles’ frantic and sour Joe Strummer slur, all of it captured with just the right levels of tinny, cheap fidelity. “On the Street” is just over a minute of dramatic thrash ‘n’ crash; “My Body and Me” is a little slower but just as crude in its pulverizing electric grind; even when the band really stretches out, as in “Hey Ma,” it’s to salute the big-hearted jubilance and ramshackle folk of The Pogues. An Obelisk bears witness to a deep, full-spectrum love of classic punk, but what makes the album affecting isn’t that it gets the sound right; it’s that it both affirms and critiques its primary texts, taking punk’s anti-authoritarian slant as a springboard for careful self-reflection. An early song called “(I Blame) Society” kicks against the pricks, but the more Stickles thinks on it, the more he wonders if he’s part of the solution or part of the problem. “The Lion Inside” suggests that the true asshole is the inner asshole, while “Tumult Around the World” wonders if one man’s problems amount to a hill of beans when there’s so much trouble to go around. It’s a record that rails against a world gone to ruin, but it takes punk’s street-fighting spirit a step further by throwing a few punches at the man in the mirror and his silent complicity.  It’s rock, rock criticism, and self-criticism all in one– and it’s proof that there are still plenty of big ideas you can conceal just below the din of pummeling drums and ragged guitars.

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