Imagine being handed a magazine already open to the best, most interesting page. Anyone’s interest would be immediately engaged, piqued, and that person would probably be tempted to give the rest of the magazine a shot. There might even be some residual nostalgia as the rest of the pages flipped by, causing the tendency to overlook otherwise glaring flaws, or at least the illusion that drooping levels of excitement are due to the law of diminishing returns
Such is the unfortunate case of The Black Keys’ El Camino, an album whose rollicking start combined with the band’s previous successes creates a veneer of excitement that the doesn’t hold up to inspection. The Black Keys drop in hard, applying a defibrillator of a guitar riff to the faded-in flatline of a single distorted note. On top of that foundation, drum set and high-octave synth bring to life a song screaming for a crazy dance from its very first breath.
That Frankenstein’s Monster of a single was anthropomorphized in the video for “Lonely Boy” in the form of a meme-y, gif-able dancing geezer. It’s an excellent time, and catchy like a motherfucker. But kicking off an album with a lead, viral single carries risk as well – namely, that putting your best foot forward doesn’t matter much if you remain standing in that same spot for the next half-hour.
And, oh, that El Camino even did that, rather than take a procession of baby steps backward over the next 10 tracks. Blues rock is a confining enough genre by itself, seeing as its foundation is a chord progression that’s been defined for about a hundred years. But the band fails to break through the monotony with the same regularity they’ve managed on previous albums; the easiest (though not the only) way to do this is to turn up the volume and let rip with new-school guitar, but nowhere on El Camino is there the fusion solo action of Brothers’ “Sinister Kid,” the spacey bridgework of Attack and Release’s “Strange Times” or even the unrequited joy of “Tighten Up.” The Black Keys seems to have trapped itself within its own form; then again, it’s probably hard to sell a bitchin’ sloppy solo as a Zales commercial.
No, The Black Keys have found its niche genre, perfected it, then disappeared into so much mid-tempo, minor thirded, hand-clapping oblivion. Save for the acoustic half of a song called “Little Black Submarines,” the distorted electric guitar blues riffs and lyrics about lost loves run together until a jolt on the track “Stop Stop.” It seems like a welcome change-up until the horrible realization that the song is just, in the worst way possible, unpolished Maroon 5, complete with teen-pop lyricism like: “I hounded you forever / But you never saw / This love was so strong it should have / Been against the law.”
As disheartening as it is, with El Camino, The Black Keys has essentially created a musical “Maxim” magazine, and not just because it’s an album about girls that’s named after a muscle car. Its form hits that tenor as well: It’s definitely glossy, and it might be fun in parts, but that doesn’t mean it’s any good.
Two stars out of five