This is the seventh in a series of eight posts breaking down each of the Black Keys albums leading up to the release of Turn Blue on May 13.
Most of the time when I’m talking about an album that I really like I end up saying something like, “Is it perfect? No, but it is great…”, but I won’t say that about Brothers. I won’t say that because Brothers isn’t close to being perfect, it is perfect. Bold statement? Of course. After all, maybe art can never be perfect. But for the purposes of this post I’m going to say that there is such a thing as perfection and that Brothers is in that category.
Other examples of perfect albums would be Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, The Rolling Stone’s Exile on Main Street and U2’s The Joshua Tree, among others. It’s an exclusive club, but it’s not unattainable.
A perfect album is a band or artist at their peak. It is accomplishes exactly what it sets out to accomplish. Musically, it’s amazing. Lyrically it’s deep. But more importantly it captures a feeling, an emotion, a time period, or a location perfectly. Not only is it experienced sonically, but it visually takes you to a place all it’s own. Art, at it’s peak, is never only about the finished product. It’s about the journey, the story, what it represents and how it elevates culture as a whole.
Brothers is the Black Keys at their best. Much has been written about this album and the Black Keys’ journey to making it. In sum, after Attack & Release Auerbach and Carney went their separate ways for a time. They both released albums apart from each other, Auerbach, an excellent solo record called Keep it Hid, and Carney an album with his side band called Drummer. Carney also went through a divorce with his wife of a few years. This was a rough time for the two of them. But they didn’t break up as so many bands at this crossroads would have done. Instead they decided to keep going and to do this they headed to the famous Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Here they grinded out what would become their signature record, the record that would launch them into superstardom, the one that would win them their first Grammy and crown them the kings of true rock and roll. But first, they had to write some songs. The first song they worked on could not have been more appropriate for the time, and may be the most important song in the history of the Black Keys. Auerbach had penned one of the greatest break up songs of all time and it resonated perfectly with Carney, “Next Girl” set the tone for the whole album. With it’s swampy guitar, and biting lyrics it kicked off 10 historically great days of recording.
Every song on the album fits perfectly together. No longer are the Black Keys experimenting and sometimes overreaching like on Attack & Release, on Brothers they hit everything on the mark. From the first use of Auerbach’s now signature falsetto in “Everlasting Light”, to the Gary Glitter-esque “Howlin’ for You”, to the Isaac Hayes cover “Never Gonna Give You Up”, there’s a central feeling to the songs. The best description of the sound of Brothers is the instrumental track “Black Mud”. I can’t put into words properly what the “sound” of the album is, but “Black Mud” does it so I don’t have to reach for words and sound silly.
Brothers is also Auerbach at his best as a lyricist. You can tell he actually sat down and really spent time on the lyrics for a lot of these songs. Obviously, “Next Girl” comes from a very personal place for he and Carney. But other songs like “She’s Long Gone” (which I feel is underrated, but is an amazing song), “Too Afraid to Love You”, and “The Go Getter” show Auerbach as a mature and varied lyricist. He digs deep into his bluesy roots for “Ten Cent Pistol” which sounds like a story straight from Leadbelly.
What makes Brothers perfect isn’t the expert musicianship, or the lyrics, or the catchy tunes. Plenty of albums feature those elements. What makes it perfect is that it is the culmination of everything the Black Keys had been working towards. They had been a band for nine years, starting off like so many: banging away in a basement. But in those basement recordings, there’s something special. Anyone can see it. They weren’t just kids, there was a musical maturity on the Big Come Up and Thickfreakness that betrayed their young ages. But those kids would have never made Brothers. And the experimentation that gradually crept in while recording Rubber Factory and Magic Potion and really manifested itself in the making of Attack & Release reaped it’s rewards in Brothers. The study of the greats like Kimbrough on Chulahoma would also lead to recording in an unused but legendary studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Take a look at the other albums I listed as perfect. Each album on that list has a similar story. None of them are the first efforts of the artists. You see perfection doesn’t just happen. It’s a culmination of a number of factors. It’s putting in those 10,000 hours. It’s fighting through hardship. It’s staying true to yourself. Only then can you produce something with such significance and something that is, well, perfect.
The follow-up to Brothers would have to be something special, and the Black Keys knew just what to do: fast, hard-driving, arena-filling rock and roll. Come back next week as I wrap up the series with my take on El Camino.
So many choices, but I figure you have heard “Tighten Up” by now and I linked to a number of others in the post. Here’s a favorite of mine that I don’t feel gets enough credit as the great song that it is.