Basically, after you have a hit like "Tighten Up" and "Howling For You," you don't get to go back to the little rooms (to paraphrase Jack White.) Some bands elect to chase their newfound audience off. Some bands try too hard to keep them. With a band like the Black Keys, that would be bad. There's the problem: if they made an album that ignored their success, their label would probably chuck them to the curb. If they tried too hard to please their new fans, they'd end up pleasing nobody. Everybody wants to have hits, but nobody wants to get caught in the act of aiming for a hit. The magic of El Camino is that it succeeds and in fact thrives: it gives the people what they want, the Black Keys album they dreamed was next. No more, no less.
All that is why this album is noticeably brighter and more upbeat than the often dour Brothers. That one was good music, and I wouldn't fault them if they didn't change the routine for their next album, but instead they rose to the challenge of creating a great Black Keys album that was also a chart topping monster. This sort of premise is usually a recipe for a compromise that pleases nobody.
What they ended up with was not merely an album that contained hits, but an album that was made out of them. Every track on this album has a welcoming air to it, a feeling like you've been hearing it in the background of your entire life since forever. That's not just because "Little Black Submarines" is a compressed version of "Stairway To Heaven," but also because songs like "Gold on the Ceiling" and "Stop Stop" have those irresistible grooves you didn't know you'd been craving this whole time. Moments in between those peaks, like "Money Maker," "Run Right Back," "Sister" and "Dead and Gone" keep the ear from waning. This album is compulsively listenable. Each track cements the fact that Auerbach and Carney are the makers of great rock music.
Still, it never betrays the sound that brought us to the Keys two years ago. Auerbach's guitar wails with wry, dark pain, his vocals distant and obscure, Carney's drums thundering insistently, tons of interesting minor choices all throughout. This is auteurial rock, still, while also being for the masses.
It works because they're great at what they do, and know how to soak the album with those primal elements that makes music so addictive to so many people. "Lonely Boy," the opening track and first single, announces it with great urgency. There's a reason why this is the "mainstream" stuff, though: it's fun. It's big, it's groovy, it's hook-laden, you find yourself humming it, it moves you. It's fucking delicious. If you're an artist playing to small audience, it's no great shakes to make an album you can be proud of, just by following your instincts. An album like this requires walking a remarkable tightrope act.
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