By Chris Moore:
RATING: 3.5 / 5 stars
In many ways, the Black Keys are as simple a group as any making music of any kind these days. Their lineup? Two men: Patrick Carney on drums and Dan Auerbach on guitar. Their music? Often riff driven, and usually classified as blues rock. Their most recent album? Well, the cover reads, “This is an album by The Black Keys. The name of this album is Brothers.” The back cover? Reads: “These are the names of the songs on this album. These are the guys in the band.”
From the outside, there has never been an arrangement of sounds, words, and packaging that was quite so blunt.
And yet, there is an inner torment here, ostensibly brought on by the soul-searching trip down memory lane that runs as a common thread throughout all fifteen tracks on Brothers. At every lyrical turn, the songs return to that most basic of subject matter: the effects of early — and, most often, painful — experiences with love.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the Black Keys would set the music video for “Tighten Up” on a playground, a video which finds Carney and Auerbach’s sons (in the storyline, at least) vying for the attention of a girl. By the end of the video, the adults, after trying to break up the fight, have begun fighting over the mother of the girl.
The moral of the story, it seems, is that we may grow older, but we never truly change.
Especially when it comes to attraction and love.
As Auerbach sings in “Tighten Up,” “When I was young and moving fast / Nothing slowed me down.” As the years have gone by, he’s “Living just to keep going / Going just to keep sane.” The latter lines suggest that there are accumulated memories and experiences from which to run.
These fifteen songs — alternating between the outstanding and the okay — pick at the scars in order to explore those memories and experiences.
Alternating between tender vulnerability and world-weary realism, the resounding statement that this album makes is, as stated on “Next Girl,” “I made mistakes back then / I’ll never do it again.” During the album-long review of history, there are some mild bouts of nostalgia, but most of those even end in an audible hardening of the skin. Most are stark realizations, as he goes on to sing in this song that “A beautiful face / And a wicked way / And I’m paying for her / Beautiful face every day.”
“Next Girl” may seem harsh, even misogynistic, but at its core, it is a song about loving not only based on appearances, but also being aware of the deeper values.
Much of the material here refers to relationships gone wrong, as in “She’s Long Gone” when Auerbach sings about a girl who “was made to blow you away/ She don’t care what any man say / You can watch her strut / But keep your mouth shut / Or it’s ruination day.” This is the classic girl-as-temptress scenario, and calls to mind Estella, the girl who was raised to break men’s hearts in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. The term “ruination day” adds a biblical edge to the tale.
This girl must really have made an impression, as Auerbach goes on to sing, “And she’s not made like those other girls.”
Revisiting track four, one is left to wonder if this is the same girl he is referring to when he sings, “Throw the ball / To the stick / Swing and miss / In the catcher’s mitt / Strike two / Baby I’m howlin’ for you.”
Another theme that is played out is that of jealousy and its longtime ally revenge. In “Ten Cent Pistol,” Auerbach establishes himself as a third person narrator, telling the tale of a man who “ran around / Late at night / Holding hands / And making light / Of everything / That came before.” This individual, apparently vowing never to commit, goes on to make an enemy of a woman, perhaps surprised that their time together turned out to be a one-night stand.
He goes on to sing, “There’s nothing worse / In this world / Than payback from a / Jealous girl / The laws of man / Don’t apply / When blood gets in / A woman’s eye.” Again, a bit exaggerated perhaps, but this sentiment is in line with the woman-as-dangerous paradigm that is explored throughout the album.
The middle to end of the album is perhaps the most blunt, as Auerbach sings of morality in “Sinister Kid,” noting that “Your mother’s words / They’re ringing still / But your mother don’t / Pay our bills.” Later, in “The Go Getter,” he recounts, “I got a table at the Rainbow Room / I told my wife I’d be home soon… I see my life going down the drain / Hold me baby and don’t let go / Pretty girls help to soften the blow.” In both cases, the commonality is idealism versus realism. Both acknowledge normalcy (or what “should” be done), yet go on to do what is necessary, or at least what “help[s] to soften the blow.”
The low point for optimism falls in “I’m Not the One,” as Auerbach asserts, “You think / That I’m normal / But all these years / I’m just trying to warn you / You’d do good / To move on / No it won’t / Hurt me none.”
It’s difficult to believe a statement like this, particularly the idea that another moving on wouldn’t hurt, considering the more vulnerable moments that are explored on this album, as in “Too Afraid to Love You” when he admits that most basic of human truths: “I’m just one wishing / That I was a pair / With someone / Oh somewhere.” Then, there is their decision to cover “Never Gonna Give You Up,” which is hardly a song of defeat.
To be certain, the narrator’s recounting of what seem to be early experiences with love are most often delivered with a subtext of regret embedded. Oftentimes, the pain is felt when reality overshadows the imagination, as in “The Only One,” when he sings, “Like a ghost / The one that I love most / She disappears / When I get near.” This is perhaps the most difficult lesson of all for a young man to learn: namely, that we often build up the ones we love to be something — typically something more — than what they are in reality.
Memories aren’t all bad on the album, though when they aren’t bad, they’re sad, as in “Unknown Brother”: “We’ll smile like pictures / Of you as a boy / Long before you retired / To heavenly joy.” This is really the first time since the opening track, where Auerbach states “Love is the coal / That makes this train roll,” that affection is viewed in a positive light.
The album begins with the optimistic sentiment, “Let me be your everlasting light / The sun when there is none,” but it soon turns out that this is probably less a serious request than a desire to believe that this kind of simple, pure love could exist. This seems to be supported by the closing track of the album, when Auerbach confides in us that, “Wasted times and broken dreams / Violent colors so obscene / It’s all I see these days / These days.”
These songs could be taken at face value as simple little blues rock numbers, but there is so much more woven into the lyrics, and particularly into the vocal deliveries, guitar riffs, and other instrumentation. All in all, Brothers reads as a return for Carney and Auerbach to the Black Keys, a brotherhood of sorts, that exists after all these years as an outlet for them, as something in which to place faith in the ability of man to feel genuine camaraderie and sentiment, even if it is wrapped in pain and torment.
But, then again, that’s the blues, right?