Have We Seen the Last of the Black Keys?

On the 10th anniversary of their breakthrough album ‘Attack & Release’ taking a long hard look at the future of the Black Keys

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On April 1, 2008 the Black Keys released Attack & Release. The album was their fifth full length album, their first with an outside producer with Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney enlisting Danger Mouse to produce. The album’s songs were originally intended to be part of a collaboration with Ike Turner, but things changed when Turner died. Making the most of out a bummer of a situation, the band reworked the tunes with Danger Mouse and Attack and Release proved to be a turning point for them, sending the band down a road towards bigger sounds, bigger venues and bigger crowds and acclaim.

In the years that followed, the band continued to work with Danger Mouse, alternating between a more straight forward, garage rock vibe and a dirty, swampy blues sound. Their high water mark came in 2011 with the release of El Camino, which was anchored by the singles “Lonely Boy” and “Gold on the Ceiling.” They were selling out arenas now. They were winning Grammys now. With rock ‘n roll desperately looking for someone to save it, the Black Keys looked like the best option out there.

They followed up the super charged success of El Camino in 2013 with Turn Blue, an album that wasn’t nearly as successful, despite being their first record to debut at number one. It just didn’t have much bite to it, was uncharacteristically sprawling and smelled of desert rock. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was disappointing, but it wasn’t all that inspiring either and ultimately it failed to capture any of the enthusiasm and excitement generated from El Camino.

But regardless of how you felt about Turn Blue, you definitely didn’t feel like it was the end of the Black Keys. A bump in the road maybe, but certainly not the end. They would recover. They could pull off a course correction and fingers crossed, rediscover their garage rock roots. They had wandered some, but they were far from lost.

Of course for the band to regain their footing, it would require them actually soldiering on together, something they haven’t been all that inclined to do in the past few years. Auerbach has been particularly active as of late, jumping from one project to the next. He’s gone from the layered sound of the Arcs to the retro pop of his 2017 solo album to now indulging in his nostalgia day dreams with the Easy Eye Sound Revue. He’s also recorded with Mark Ronson and Action Bronson, produced records for Lana Del Rey, The Pretenders and Cage the Elephant and built a record label and studio in his new home base of Nashville. The one thing he hasn’t really done is talk that much about the Black Keys. He hasn’t flat out dodged the question, but his answers haven’t provided much clarity either.

“We’re good with each other,” Auerbach said of Carney recently. “We didn’t have to stop. We could still be on the road if we wanted to be on the road. We will get back together at some point. We’ve been friends since we were kids. There’s no reason to stop. We have plenty of music left in us and the cool thing is that I have enough music in me that I can make solo albums as well.”

Carney made an appearance at an Auerbach solo gig in Nashville earlier this year, helping Auerbach back a mini-set by blues singer Robert Findley. It was the first time the two had shared a stage since 2015, when their last Turn Blue tour ended. As exciting as it most likely was to see the two of them on stage together though, it’s definitely worth noting the absence of any Black Keys’ songs in their set. A ripping version of “Lonely Boy” definitely would have helped things when it comes to trying to forecast the band’s future and feeling reassured that there actually was a future.

Now I have to admit, I probably think about the likelihood of a Black Keys return once or twice a week. A Black Keys’ song comes on or an Auerbach solo joint does and I can’t help but wonder if the dynamic duo from Akron will ever make another album again. For some reason it feels as if they’ve been gone a lot longer than they actually have. The last time Auerbach and Carney played together as the Black Keys was 2015, which according to the calendar, was not that long ago. Bands take breaks all the time, especially bands that have been together as long as they have. If the Black Keys all of sudden re-emerged later this year, from a calendar-perspective it wouldn’t seem that outlandish. They took three years off. Good for them. As far as band hiatuses go, three years isn’t that long at all.

That would be one point in the “Their Totally Getting Back Together at Some Point” column.

Pump the breaks on the excitement though.

Image result for black keys

Auerbach (L) & Carney

I think that where things get muddled is that when you look at the three years that Auerbach and Carney have spent apart from one another, especially with how Auerbach has spent his time off. It’s been a long three years. Calendars are one thing, but the feeling of the passage of time is another. Ask anyone who dares follow the news now; a day feels like a week, a week feels like a month, a year feels like a decade. We’re all screwed up when it comes to understanding on how much time has passed between events. So with that being said, three years without the Black Keys feels like they’ve been gone from our lives since before we even knew what the word “collusion” meant.

It’s April 2018. Do you refer to Dan Auerbach as just Dan Auerbach or is he still Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys? I feel like he’s graduated to just going by Dan Auerbach. He’s been associated with too many other projects to just be connected to only one of them. And while I feel like that’s largely semantics, it does also help demonstrate the amount of time that has passed since the Black Keys were the the front runners to snag the title of America’s Rock Band, a title that went back to the Foo Fighters in 2015 and 2016, and is currently vacant like a championship belt in boxing.

It would be one thing if the other projects Auerbach had been involved with during this three year hiatus bore any kind of resemblance to the Black Keys, but they really don’t. The Arcs were as big and experimental as the Black Keys were small and straight-forward and Auerbach’s 2017 solo album was a magnificent exercise in sun-covered pop music, a phrase that would never be employed when describing a Keys’ song. And then the last thing he released was a boozy, vintage-sounding tune with the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Again, about as far away on the map from the Black Keys as he could possibly get.

Now you could look at all of this in two ways and depending which way you go, the outlook of the Black Keys ever returning wouldn’t look too bad or look down right dismal.

The first way is that Auerbach is making the most of his free time, experimenting and exploring sounds that he wouldn’t normally do when teamed with Carney. That way has a rosy outlook for people holding out hope for the two of them to get back together. He’s out there playing the field, but not committing to anything because his heart is still at home with the Black Keys.

That second way though, it’s dicey. Without really knowing where Auerbach stands on everything, you could definitely do a reading of his choices as the choices of a dude who is looking to branch out and do more. This could even be traced back to Black Keys’ albums released since Attack and Release. Yes, the Black Keys are a two-man band, but it’s been a minute before they really were a two man band. They’ve been backed by keyboards, bass and an extra guitar for a while now. The two-man thing is a nice hook, but it’s not the entire picture.

So could it be that Auerbach has just outgrown the limitations that come with being one of two people in a band? Again, I don’t know for sure, but it does kind of seem that way. It feels like he wants to do more and it certainly sounds like he does. It’s sounded that way for a while now.

The two-man band is a fun idea, albeit one that can be a bummer for bass players (unless you’re Royal Blood,) but it’s also an idea that comes with limitations. There is a good chance that you’re going to hit a road block eventually. It’s the nature of the beast. Bands and musicians will always want to grow and explore. But if you’re limited from an instrumentation standpoint, that is always going to be hard to do. If the Black Keys wanted to strictly adhere to their two man formula, it’s likely that the success they eventually got to would have alluded them, or at the very least, would have been much more short-lived. Their first four albums, six including the two EPs they released, are great. But they’re also somewhat repetitive. Part of the appeal of Attack and Release was how Danger Mouse was able to build on their garage rock sound, adding keyboards and nuance to it, without losing the overall essence of the band. That essence never really left, but it did start to lose some of it’s shine with each album that followed.

From that perspective, Auerbach’s choices outside the world of the Black Keys seem almost like the natural evolution of a curious musician.

That would then be not a rosy outlook for those sitting patiently, waiting for the Black Keys to make their triumphant return and grab that America’s Rock Band championship belt that sits idly by in a dive bar down a dark alley of a bruised and battered American city.

With each passing day, the likelihood of the Black Keys ever returning becomes less and less likely. Doors haven’t shut yet, but they aren’t wide open either, not while Auerbach is hob-nobbing with New Orleans’ jazz musicians and members of Dire Straits. He can say that the band could return, he could say that they could have never left and he may very well be telling the truth. But actions often speak louder than words and Auerbach’s actions scream that he has moved on, whether he knows it or not. And even if he hasn’t, who knows what kind of Black Keys we would get if they ever were to regroup? That’s happened before too, when a band returns after a lengthy absence and is a shell or a bastardized version of themselves. Would we rather have the memory of the Black Keys as we knew them or some revamped and updated version of the band that never truly lives up to their own legacy?

Look at this way, at the very least, that memory is there. That memory can remain preserved and intact regardless of what may or may not happen at some point in the future. If the Black Keys never play a song together again, it’ll be a bummer, but they did also leave us with a tight catalog of endlessly enjoyable blues, garage rock. And then if they do come back, once the joy has subsided, we’ll either embrace what music they bring with them or politely decline and dive back into their archives. It’s not a bad position to be in.

Options. They’re pretty cool.

Kind of makes you understand why Auerbach seems so interested in them.

 

 

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