Now that they’ve won a Grammy, had their songs featured in a couple of prominent ad campaigns, and scored a minor radio hit, the Black Keys have graduated to the ranks of those indie-rock acts that critics feel are safe to slag off. While there have been some substantial rumblings of a backlash since the duo’s commercial breakthrough, Brothers, the Black Keys have fired back in the best possible fashion. With El Camino, they’ve come up with a full-on party album that’s both as heavy and as insistently likable as anything they’ve recorded; the album hurtles forward with all the momentum and subtlety of a cannonball, and it’s best either to get on board or just to get the hell out of the way.
Though El Camino is as sweaty and thundering as Rubber Factory and Thickfreakness, the Black Keys have replaced their sometimes insular focus on blues formalism with an emphasis on pop hooks. That producer Danger Mouse plays such a prominent role in this aesthetic shift is at least a little bit of a surprise, considering the dreary, proggy wash he brought to the band’s 2008 album Attack & Release. But both Danger Mouse and the Black Keys are in peak form here, with Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney offering a set of blistering, to-the-point songs and Danger Mouse focusing more on emphasizing hooks than on creating texture.
On songs like “Money Maker” and the brilliant lead single, “Lonely Boy,” Danger Mouse leans heavily on the rhythm half of the R&B influences in the Black Keys’ songwriting. Both the diamond-cut precision and the prominence of the rhythm sections in the mixes of “Gold on the Ceiling” and “Hell of a Season” owe as much to modern hip-hop as to the vintage R&B that ran through earlier Black Keys albums, and it’s that distinction that makes El Camino sound fresh and contemporary. But for the Led Zeppelin homage of “Little Black Submarines,” the album impresses for looking to the present for inspiration rather than settling for a simple, retro-minded genre pastiche.
Every track on the album seems to boast a bigger, filthier hook than the one before it, and that’s why El Camino works. Not since the heyday of Andrew W.K. has a rock act so successfully pulled off a party album. What it may lack in thematic heft (the minimalism of Auerbach’s lyrics scans as more than a little arch and ironic, but it’s not like that’s somehow out of step with the album’s overall tone), it more than compensates for in pure verve. The Black Keys have never been able to swagger as convincingly as they do on El Camino, and if that’s because of their heightened commercial presence, well, thank God for Subaru and SNL.