The duo the Black Keys, consisting of Dan Auerbach on vocals and guitar, and Patrick Carney on the drums, are just one of many contemporary examples of blues’ presence in modern music. The storied genre itself originated in the 19th century in the Southern United States, near the Mississippi Delta, and is explicitly tied to the traditions of African American slaves.
As Southern slaves toiled in the fields, they attempted to pass their time and ease some of their suffering by singing work tunes. These collections of hollers, chants and shouts fused together musical elements from native African and spiritual music. The lyrics generally dealt with personal adversity and captured the slaves’ emotional suffering.
The blues were passed down from the slaves to their children through oral tradition, but didn’t officially constitute a genre until musicians like Robert Johnson and Sun King began performing in the 1920s and ‘30s. These two musicians are credited for the creation of the genre, forming the basics of the blues with mere vocals and a six-string guitar.
The Big Come Up
The Black Keys have remained faithful to the blues tradition, all the while implementing revolutionary sounds not typically associated with the genre. In 2002, The Black Keys released their first album, “The Big Come Up,” a gritty blues rock album that pays homage to legends like Robert Johnson. In this album, Auerbach’s voice seems distant and muggy, almost as if he’s talking through a payphone. The style of this album is appropriately labeled garage rock, given that they recorded this album in Carney’s dim, cramped basement.
On this album, they used a sound distortion technique called medium fidelity, which created the distinct rough sound of Auerbach’s voice and guitar, making this album seem like it could have been recorded in the 1950s. This method of distortion, along with Auerbach’s sporadic riffs of sliding guitar, sends the listener back in time, only to be forced back to the modern era with Carney’s modern yet simple punk rock drum style. This album established the Black Keys as a band that can capture the heart of the Delta blues, while still creating something entirely unique. The songs “Countdown” and “Heavy Soul” exemplify their interpretation of traditional blues.
The Black Keys’ second album, “Thickfreakness,” released in 2003, accomplishes a heavier sound than their first. In this album, the Black Keys remain faithful to the blues elements that made “The Big Come Up” so successful but thicken their sound and move slightly into punk rock territory. Auerbach’s intensity on the album fits perfectly with Carney’s rambunctious tempo. Although some songs, like the title track, appear sloppy and bumbled, the buzzing guitar syncopations achieve a mood of restlessness that builds throughout the album.
“Midnight in Her Eyes” dives into the thoughts of a distressed man who has broken the heart of a woman who loved him. Auerbach sings, “Lately you are feeling low / heartache on the floor / Your manic ways got the best of you / but your heart is going to see you through / Lately, you’re feeling low.” This song brings the listener into the heart of a lonely man who regrets his past mistakes, embodying the sorrowful flow of the blues. “Set You Free” is an amazing step away from the slow mourning tempo of “Midnight In Her Eyes” and instills the listener with a good crisp change of pace in this somewhat hectic album.
In 2004, the Black Keys released “Rubber Factory,” their third album. The duo recorded this album in a rubber factory in their hometown of Akron, Ohio. The gritty songs are diverse and jump between tender ballads in “The Lengths,” intense indie rock in “10 a.m. Automatic” and twangy swing pop in “Act Nice and Gentle.” The mix of genres in this album proves the Black Keys are capable of huge stylistic shifts and are much more than an ode to traditional blues. “Stack Shot Billy” brings the sound back to the Delta and is reminiscent of the Black Keys’ first album.
Arguably the Black Keys most blues-oriented album, “Chulahoma” covers seven songs by Junior Kimbrough, a Mississippi blues musician. Kimbrough is known for the fluctuating tone of his shrill voice, and the flowing unpredictable synchronization of his guitar melodies. He’s renowned as an innovator in the world of blues and credited with the creation of hill country blues, characterized by a syncopated, hypnotic rhythm. The Black Keys have taken inspiration from Kimbrough in all of their albums but pay respect to his specific songs in this masterpiece.
Auerbach’s hollering stream of shifting pitches seems astonishingly similar to Kimbrough’s, but his guitar riffs modernize the sound, and change the original tempos slightly. Junior Kimbrough’s “Meet Me in the City” is a simply versed blues song that expresses Kimbrough’s longing for a second chance with a girl that has captured his heart. Although the lyrics are humble, the rhythm of stressed irregular guitar riffs fills me with unprecedented anticipation. On the surface, the song is a painful cry from Kimbrough to reignite his relationship with a woman he has fallen deeply for once again.
In the Black Keys’ version, Auerbach’s guitar’s hypnotic flow takes precedence over the sound of his lyrics, enabling him to prompt a beautiful contrast between his gloomy lyrics, which to me express a pessimistic truth, and a calm flowing melody, that grants hope in his examination of longing. Although the Black Keys’ version of “Meet Me in the City” embodies Kimbrough’s vision of the blues exquisitely, the band intensify their pronunciation of his lyrics.
They also slightly alter the melody through lingering offbeat swells of dissonant guitar, cleaning up Kimbrough’s classic while still maintaining the eccentricity of his impulsive guitar riffs. The lyrics in the version produced by the Black Keys don’t provide me with as much in-depth emotion as the original version, but the original guitar and drum solos show me they understood Kimbrough’s style of the blues better than any other.
The Black Keys’ sixth original album, “Magic Potion,” taps once more into the primal nature of the blues that dominated Auerbach’s vocals in “Chulahoma.” The song “Strange Desire” takes their sound in an abnormal direction, traversing heavier elements of reverbed guitar and hard cymbals that build up an angsty pressure in the sound.
Patrick Carney takes center stage in this album by implementing complex drumbeats. “Your Touch” is the most popular from this album and takes on a similar feel to “10 a.m. Automatic” by blending in bluesy guitar riffs and punk rock melodies. That said, this album contains a few songs that don’t seem to fit in with the overall mood, making it a little clunky and hard to follow. But despite the faults of “Magic Potion,” “Your Touch” remains one of the Black Keys’ most popular songs.
Attack and Release
After “Magic Potion,” critics believed they had used up the blues genre, and done everything that could be done with their sound. The Keys were searching for new stylistic avenues to explore and found it with their new record label, Danger Mouse.
Danger Mouse helped the Keys add a flare of surprise to their sound, that many had seen as monotonous and repetitive. This record label change led to the creation of “Attack and Release” in 2008. Each song on the album sounds familiar but adds in computerized sound distortions that amplify the music’s emotion. The song “Same Old Thing” uses feedback looped flute, creating a foreign sound like none other. Each song in this album implements psychedelia in unique ways.
“So He Won’t Break” blends together a lively xylophone and a gloomy guitar solo that beautifully encapsulates the Black Keys’ modernization of the blues. In “Psychotic Girl,” Auerbach uses a banjo to complement Carney’s crisp, more defined drum solo. “Attack and Release” marked a pivotal moment in the Black Keys’ career.
Danger Mouse provided the duo with the perfect amount of modern sound, enabling them to move toward a contemporary psychedelic sound, while still leaving the listener with the emotional depth that albums like “Chulahoma” provided so well. “Things Ain’t Like They Used To Be” leads the album to a slow, melodic finish. Auerbach’s voice sounds defeated and echoes sluggishly through drawn-out melodies. The lyrics describe a happier past that can’t be relived but elicits hope in the lyrics “It doesn’t mean a thing to me.”
The Black Keys’ find their blues in the song, even if they aren’t the traditional Delta blues they played in the past. The loose sound throughout the album carries into their next album, “Brothers,” which builds upon the new elements of psychedelia introduced in “Attack and Release,” all while staying committed to the meaningful emotion their blues elicit.
The Black Keys released “Brothers” in 2010, establishing a distinct sound that can’t be mistaken for any other band. The first two songs in this album, “Next Girl” and “Tighten Up,” exemplify the major sonic shift that took place in the Keys’ music from “Attack and Release” to “Brothers.” In the album we get the best aspects of what the Black Keys have adopted from Danger Mouse.
Almost every song on the album is an instant classic that forces us to redefine the meaning of the blues. “Howlin’ for You” and “Black Mud” take on a Creedence Clearwater Revival-esque lightheartedness, contrasting their previous sorrowful music with upbeat harmonics. Auerbach shows his aptitude for falsetto in the song “Everlasting Light” and continues to surprise listeners with his vocal projection in “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Although the revolutionary sound in “Brothers” moves far away from the style of Junior Kimbrough, it still instills the listeners with just as much in-depth emotion. It’s hard to argue that “Brothers” is not the Black Keys’ best album.
The Black Keys’ album “El Camino” sounds like it relied too heavily on stereotypical pop guitar melodies and doesn’t feel like the blues whatsoever. They implemented the stylistic sound distortions that Danger Mouse did so well in “Brothers” but relied too heavily on them. The songs are not as emotional, and the lyrics are embarrassingly cliché. Although a few of the songs in this album work, it is generally considered to be the Black Keys’ worst album.
The lyrics in the songs “Gold on the Ceiling” and “Money Maker” sound wearily repetitive. Although this album fails to live up to the high expectations set by “Brothers,” it has a few good songs like “Little Black Submarines” and “Hell of Season.” This album shows the potential of their musical talent but fails to bring out the raw emotion that was so persistent in their past albums.
The negative reviews of “El Camino” caused something of a stylistic rift between Auerbach and Carney, which is why they didn’t release their next album, “Turn Blue,” until 2014. The album returns the Black Keys back to the sounds that made them unique. An interesting psychedelic swirl of rock full of deep and meaningful lyrics makes this album a stark rejection of the clichéd words used in “El Camino.” The melodies on “Turn Blue” are still less bluesy and more pop than their previous release, but the Keys do a good job of making this album traverse meaningful topics of self-doubt and love.
The album has a better structure than “El Camino,” but still falls into the trap of stereotypical sounds. “Weight of Love” is an amazing drawn out moody guitar epic that hits right on the money, and “Gotta Get Away” returns to a CCR style that the Black Keys have proven to be adept at. Although the release is invariably better than “El Camino,” songs like “Turn Blue” and “Fever” move way too far from the blues, and its lyrics border on cringeworthy. The recording blends together elements of rock that appeared in “Attack and Release” but makes the same mistake that “El Camino” made in trying to remake “Brothers.” It’s not the Black Keys worst album, but it doesn’t make use of the experimental blues that contributed to their distinct sound.
After another disappointing album, The Black Keys once again went into hiding until their latest album, “Let’s Rock,” was released in 2019. The album does in fact rock, and they do it very well, but it still cannot live up to “Brothers.” Although they live up to the title of their album through impressive drum and guitar solos, they once again fail to find the lyrics that gave their early albums such a transcendent nature. “Lo/Hi” is a song about the thrills and letdowns of a musician’s life and is a catchy tune, but like the song “Sit Around and Miss You,” it feels cheap and commercialized.
The album lacks the angsty anticipation that unexpected guitar riffs provided listeners with in “Rubber Factory” and “Attack and Release.” “Let’s Rock” very well might be The Black Keys’ last album, which is slightly disappointing. It’s not that the release completely misses the mark, but it seemed to let down the public, who desperately hoped for a return to the Delta blues.
Although the progression of the Black Keys’ music has moved away from the sounds of legends like Kimbrough and Johnson, they remain true to the meaning behind their music. The Black Keys initially sought to build upon the sounds of those blues legends, but eventually found a sound of their own. Their musical progression follows a bell curve, at least in the sense that their middle albums were the most spontaneous, creative and original.
The Keys have drastically changed their style for better and for worse, but throughout all of their music there remains a commonality, the “spontaneous overflow of feelings and emotions, recollected in tranquility.” The Black Keys have transformed the public’s perception of what the blues can be and have introduced many to the healing power of the genre.
Although none of us today, including the Black Keys, had to deal with the hardships that motivated the creation of the blues, all of us experience self-doubt or pain at some points in our lives. One way I have learned to cope with negative feelings is to embrace my suffering. You can learn from those who sang songs of sorrow to ease the pain of a long day’s work. You can write, sing or listen to the blues, to revel in the broken human condition, embody the raw emotions that occupy your mind and find tranquility in your depression.