Album: Dropout Boogie
Artist: The Black Keys
Released: May 13th, 2022
Highlights: Wild Child, It Ain’t Over, Burn the Damn Thing Down
Regardless of what the future might hold for them, it is already safe to say The Black Keys have built a very unique career arch. Starting as a duo that rode the wave of the garage rock revival of the early 2000s while borrowing much of their musicality from blues, the band inevitably drew comparisons to The White Stripes; and since Jack and Meg had been around for longer, naysayers were quick to label Dan and Patrick as mere imitators. The truth, though, was – as it usually is – much more nuanced, and a good look at the facts ought to reveal The Black Keys were far from being copycats due to the simple fact they brought something new to the table. Because where Jack liked to pervert the blues via his weird pop sensibilities as well as primitive pounding, Dan and Patrick were more faithful to the genre, daring to build contemporary songs on top of licks, bars, and chord progressions born by the Mississippi.
Eventually, though, the recipe started to change, perhaps on account of how the band’s fourth album, the solid “Magic Potion”, showed signs that it was time to move on. And like any group with a good deal of artistic talent, The Black Keys started stepping away from their origins; a change that slowly occurred over the course of another four albums and that saw a progressively greater amount of pop, soul, and psychedelia being thrown into their sound. Blues aficionados that originally saw The Black Keys as the last of a long-lost breed may not have liked the metamorphosis, but it cannot be denied that the whole process brought positive results to the duo: they got more popular, penned a few hits, probably grew richer, and – most importantly – put together two excellent albums in “Brothers” and “El Camino”.
It is at that point where their career arch becomes unique, because while most groups would keep on going down new roads, The Black Keys – maybe influenced by the lukewarm response received by 2014’s “Turn Blue” – decided to go back to the past and rekindle their relationship with blues. Released in 2019, “Let’s Rock” was responsible for signaling that return. Arriving two years later, “Delta Kream” loudly proved the pair was very serious about this musical trek to the past due to how it was an album of blues covers. The year of 2022, meanwhile, sees the continuation of that trend with “Dropout Boogie”, which – to those that were for some reason still doubtful after two records – further confirms this is no brief detour or a quick fling with an old passion: it is for real.
Now, as flashy as it might be to say that The Black Keys are doing blues rock again, it is important to note such analysis is superficial. There sure was a lot of the genre in “Let’s Rock”, and for “Delta Kream” that goes without saying; but, particularly when it comes to the first one, when reading a statement like that it is easy to think the band is suddenly writing the new “The Big Come Up” or another “Rubber Factory”. That is not the case at all, because as not-so-silently stated by the cover of “Let’s Rock”, its music might be drenched in blues, but its main influence lies elsewhere; to be more specific, in T. Rex and its classic “Electric Warrior”. And the link exists in how both records are built on mid-tempo bars and rhythmic guitar bits that are blues staples, while covering it all in a scratchy distortion, in a hazy vibe that sometimes feels psychedelic, and in pop songwriting.
Describing “Let’s Rock” is essential when talking about “Dropout Boogie” because both are rather similar; one could randomly rearrange their songs to make two different albums and critics would not complain about lack of cohesion in any of the releases. On one hand, that is not a good sign because it screams of stagnation and because the only time when it is acceptable for a band to write two equal albums in a row is when they are honing their craft, which is a moment that is long gone for veterans like The Black Keys. On the other, “Dropout Boogie” manages to make that similarity more acceptable thanks to how it presents enough new elements to create some separation, as it seems to use “Let’s Rock” as a base rather than an artifact that must be copied.
Most of that distinction stems from how “Dropout Boogie” seems to go for a kind of middle ground between the version of The Black Keys that created “Let’s Rock” and the one that produced the more colorful quartet that includes “Brothers” and “El Camino”. Given the band’s career arch, it feels like with “Let’s Rock” as well as “Delta Kream” they were testing how far into blues they could go while maintaining the audience that they had gained with their massive more eclectic hits, whereas here in “Dropout Boogie” they are dialing back a bit and throwing those folks a bone by smoothing the edges, softening the roughness, and essentially looking for some balance. As a consequence, the record delivers blues rock that has a lot of touches from the soul, the pop, and the psychedelia that dominated the band’s second phase.
These traits are very present. They are in the more subdued guitar riff and in the female voices heard during the chorus of “Wild Child”. They are in the dancing groove that dominates “It Ain’t Over”, which becomes even more apparent due to the electronic buzz of borderline disco nature that accompanies the tune’s main hook. They are in the soul bridge of “For the Love of Money”. They are in the high backing vocals that appear in the chorus of “Your Team Is Looking Good” and many other songs. And they are omnipresent in both “How Long”, which is a lazy psychedelic ballad, as well as “Baby I’m Coming Home”, which culminates in a longing pop melody. Therefore, even if “Dropout Boogie” does carry a few tunes that stick more firmly to basic blues, like “For the Love of Money” and “Didn’t I Love You”, these stylistic inflections end up defining the work.
Sadly, though, the overall package does not amount to much for a few reasons. Firstly, this middle ground over which the band opted to build the album comes off as awfully safe, with the mixture it contains failing to capture most of the good characteristics The Black Keys had in the two distinct moments of their career. Secondly, maybe due to how it softens the rough edges of “Let’s Rock”, the record simply lacks the energetic punch required to make its blues rock framework truly click; in other words, “Dropout Boogie” reaches the ears like a work that was done by a great band in auto-pilot mode. Lastly, the songwriting simply is not there, and although there are a few notable good moments, many tunes qualify as pleasant but bland. Because of those issues, “Dropout Boogie” is the weakest blues-based album The Black Keys have ever put out; and if the quality of “Magic Potion” and “Turn Blue” signaled it was time for the band to end those respective eras, perhaps “Dropout Boogie” is an indication that the group should wrap up this return to the past and move on to more productive grounds.