Recorded at Dan Auerbach’s private Easy Eye Studio in Nashville, the Black Keys frontman’s Waiting on a Song is, first and foremost, a piece of studio art, and a far cry from the grimy basement recordings that constituted his band’s first few albums. Despite its at times florid arrangements, including orchestral-sized strings and horns, Auerbach’s second solo album retains an analog, live-in-the-studio feel. The sonic palette is pure late 1960s/early ’70s, with its array of warm acoustic guitars, luxurious strings, velvety bass, and Auerbach’s impossibly smooth croon creating a cozy, enveloping environment. Even in its stylistically more rocked-up moments, Waiting on a Song retains a concertedly mellow, comfortable vibe—owing partly to the newly detached vocal style that Auerbach adopts throughout.
The album’s touchstones in ’60s soul and ’70s singer-songwriter fare are obvious, emphasized by prominent guest appearances by several musical giants of the past. Thanks to the care and detail Auerbach puts into evoking both the sound and melodic character that defined bygone eras while exploring new modes of songwriting he’s rarely, if ever, delved into before, Waiting on a Song marks an unexpected turn for the musician.
The album’s most memorable instrumental and melodic flourishes are obviously indebted to Auerbach’s influences; in some cases, that derivative flavor can be excused or at least explained by the actual presence of some of those influences. The breezy title track’s melodic resemblance to the Flying Burrito Brothers’s “Sin City,” for instance, is more forgivable when taking into account that Auerbach co-wrote it with the legendary John Prine. Likewise, the fun, catchy rockabilly trappings of “Livin’ in Sin” are best appreciated as an ideal platform for none other than Duane Eddy, who plays guitar on the track as well as the braying, soulful lament “King of a One Horse Town.”
On other songs, Auerbach avoids staleness not just with his sharp original melodies, but by maintaining his heroes’ sense of tongue-in-cheek humor. The booming orchestral riff and low-key funk guitar licks that drive “Malibu Man” are striking on their own, but when Auerbach combines them with some hilariously dumb stoner rhymes that prod at the titular surfer dude (“I moved from New York/With my boogie board/And bought a big house on the ocean”), they come across as less stodgily reverent. And while the pounding piano and wailing guitar solos of “Stand by My Girl” help make that song Waiting on a Song’s most irresistible musical rave-up, it’s the funny, absurdist lyrics that render it one of Auerbach’s best songs: “I’m gonna stand by my girl/Because she’ll kill me if I don’t,” he sings, before envisioning how beautiful she’ll look at his own funeral. Like the album as a whole, it’s a complete, self-contained work that’s just as finely crafted as its musical predecessors.