In case you were wondering how to follow up a Grammy-winning album (Are you reading: Arcade Fire?), look no further than “Lonely Boy.” For most bands, it would seem that a move from dusty Akron, Ohio, to buzzing Nashville, Tenn., would be something of a creativity (and career) killer. But then again, The Black Keys are not your average band. With El Camino, the group’s seventh album, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney follow up their universally acclaimed Brothers with a wild card.
Although “Lonely Boy” is just as Danger Mouse-ized as anything from Brothers, you won’t hear it in the song. The studio polish of previous singles (“Tighten Up,” “Howlin’ for You”) is several coats leaner and several degrees rawer. ”Lonely Boy” is as much a reinterpretation of The Black Keys’ own back catalog as it is of the decades-old classic rock that inspired it (and the blues music that inspired said decades-old classic rock).
You may have heard this song 100,000 times before, but that is the point. Just because the retro charm of “Lonely Boy” lifts from those records sitting in your father’s basement doesn’t mean it’s worth leaving alone: the El Camino single is to be celebrated for its fresh take on time-tested material. It plays like an old song on purpose. Danger Mouse’s studio wizardry melts between the Keys’ sonic grooves, invisibly adding color and dimension. Stylistically, Buddy Holly surf and Kings of Leon grit may serve as reference points, but this show belongs to The Black Keys.
Auerbach tells the tale of a lonely boy on the track, but given how firmly his tongue is planted in his cheek throughout the song, he could just as easily be singing about anybody (or anything) else. This isn’t a bad thing—“Lonely Boy” marries the best of Brothers‘ polished blues jams with the gleeful abandon of their earlier material (see: Rubber Factory). The Keys have always had a sense of humor about them, but El Camino truly reaches for the funnybone in ways that Brothers didn’t. In case your younger brother took “Tighten Up” too seriously, show him the music video for “Lonely Boy,” which features no less than a single-shot dance routine from part-time actor/part-time security guard Derrick T. Tuggle. (Yes, we think the name is too good to be true, too.)
“Lonely Boy” certainly isn’t anything you’d expect to follow up a record like Brothers, but that’s what makes it a great single. Surprising in all the right ways, “Lonely Boy” offers further justification for last year’s Grammy win. This El Camino highlight is just one of many reasons that The Black Keys are a rock ‘n’ roll band to admire.