The Anniversary

El Camino Turns 10

Nonesuch
2011
Nonesuch
2011

Suddenly, the Black Keys were everywhere. In fairness, the process had actually been unfolding for years. Never strangers to syncing their music, the duo had recently achieved a new level of exposure with a few key singles from 2010’s Brothers, the album that would stand as their mainstream breakthrough after years of consistent critical praise and churning out albums while slugging it out on the road. In my mid-’00s early teenage years, I had a totally different perception of this band: the scuzzy blues-rock dudes adored by the upperclassmen art kids who parked their beat-up cars at the edge of campus to surreptitiously smoke cigarettes. There was something cultish about them, especially if you didn’t know about the music criticism narrative that imagined a sort of cartoonish rivalry between the two color-coded garage-rock duos of the ’00s. By the beginning of the ’10s, though, songs like “Tighten Up” were inescapable in commercials and at college parties alike. And that was before El Camino arrived, 10 years ago on Monday. Then, the Black Keys were really everywhere.

After the success of Brothers, the Black Keys could have capitalized. Since their 2002 debut, the Black Keys had mostly favored a solid but unchanging formula, a garage-y blues-indie, driven by Dan Auerbach’s sludgy riffs and Patrick Carney’s bashed-out beats. Most of their albums kept it simple, and it was only when they teamed up with the then in-demand producer Danger Mouse for 2008’s Attack & Release that their palette began to ever so slightly expand. Then, in 2010 — amidst Auerbach supposedly sneak-attacking Carney with a solo album, Carney’s divorce, and the theoretical near-demise of the band — they returned with Brothers, a collection that made good on their early albums while diversifying their sound with psychedelia, soul, and more straight-up classic rock. It was a reboot and a culmination and a career milestone, a swampy album with hooks sticky enough that the Black Keys won over a whole lot of of new listeners and started to garner industry stamps of approvals like Grammys.

In most timelines, the band would’ve then toured that into the ground for several years, steadily climbing festival posters, fueled by the resilience of newly infectious tracks like “Tighten Up” and “Howlin’ For You.” Instead, Auerbach and Carney found themselves surprised and burnt out by the sudden embrace of the band — and all the demands that came with it — after all those years with a more underground pedigree. They cancelled some shows, and instead decided to go back into the studio to make another album with Danger Mouse. The result, El Camino, arrived a mere year and a half after Brothers. It ended up capitalizing on Brothers‘ success in a whole different way.

Relative to their other albums, the Black Keys changed up their approach to make El Camino. They entered the studio without any songs, and invited Danger Mouse in not just as a producer, but a co-writer. The abrupt re-entry was partially by design, a reaction to the whirlwind of Brothers. Speaking to American Songwriter in 2011, Carney relayed how the Brothers era escalated rapidly — getting booked for Saturday Night Live, Grammy noms, the album going gold. “It was cool, but it kinda made me nervous,” he said. “It was like, ‘Uh, fuck.’ That’s why we didn’t want to take our usual gap between making records… It wasn’t enough time to even consider what was going on.”

Once in the studio, Auerbach and Carney worked with Danger Mouse on song ideas, getting a track every day or two, then refining. Two trends emerged. They found themselves writing faster songs — a reflection of their harried headspace but also, presumably, the knowledge that they now had to come armed with bangers for fields full of people. This dovetailed with a more acute attention to songcraft, the three of them working over songs to hone them into the most no-nonsense, direct-endorphin-hit shape. As Auerbach put it in that same American Songwriter interview:

For the first time, we were getting into the nuances of each song by asking ourselves, “How long should this intro be? How long should the pre-chorus be? Should there even be a pre-chorus?” We were playing with tempos and BPMs, seeing how a vocal hook does or doesn’t work at a faster speed. And usually, we went with the faster option.

You could instantly hear the results of these new methods across El Camino. It rushed right out the gates with “Lonely Boy,” then the most unabashed singalong anthem the Black Keys had ever recorded. And from there, El Camino never really let up. Where in the past the duo could get mired in repetition or the occasional turgid blues-rock crawl, El Camino was all swagger, all rush. The dirty glam of “Gold On The Ceiling” with its fat, squelching riff and another unshakable earworm chorus; the highway cruise grit of “Money Maker” and “Run Right Back” and “Hell Of A Season”; the coked-out riff and fuzzy slither of “Mind Eraser” — everything was precision, all in service of hitting you instantly and leaving you with hooks that forced you to come back over and over. Throughout, the band barely stopped for breath; even the temporary respite of “Little Black Submarines” is really just a setup for the song’s volcanic second half.

There was a contrast at play within El Camino. While this initially presented as the poppiest iteration of the Black Keys to date, it also did away with a lot of the affectations and sonic details of the preceding two albums. This was a raw and direct album readymade to conquer on the road; the band recorded much of it live once they’d hashed out arrangements. At the same time, while El Camino has a live, rollicking quality to it — one that only further emphasized how primed some of these songs were for the festival circuit — it didn’t return to grainy, rough-hewn aesthetic of the Black Keys in their first iteration. On El Camino, two exhausted musicians sounded invigorated, riding a crest of unforeseen popularity and tapping into something new — something visceral and immediate but also boasting the songwriting acumen they’d been sharpening in the preceding years, with a slick new layer of polish. The entire sound and approach of El Camino were deep in a take-no-prisoners vein. And the album didn’t.

As implausible as the surge of attention around Brothers had been, in hindsight that album was an enticing trail of gasoline for new fans. El Camino was a whole bunch of lit matches thrown on top of it. Soon, the ubiquity of “Tighten Up” seemed quaint, as material like “Lonely Boy” and “Gold On The Ceiling” quickly became the biggest songs to the Black Keys’ name. The early ’10s were a funny time: Although indie acts were managing surprising crossover successes, at least as far as critically approved rock music went, there weren’t exactly a lot of new rockstars being minted in a mainstream capacity. But then the Black Keys came along, with a definitively classic sound, one almost doofy in its embrace of rock’s most meat-and-potatoes elements. And they became bona fide stars, their songs inescapable in movies or TV shows or shopping malls or, like, anywhere.

Rather than shoot themselves in the foot by cutting off promotion of Brothers, the Black Keys struck on their moment and catapulted themselves to a whole new echelon. They’ve done a lot to quiet the fervor around them since: The El Camino followup, 2014’s Turn Blue, had a lot of strong material but was blearier and more psychedelic, with less potential for that crossover song moment save the addictive “Fever.” Then there was a yawning five-year gap, and then 2019’s self-consciously back-to-basics Let’s Rock! At this point, the Black Keys are probably solidified as a major rock act, but Brothers and El Camino remain a flashpoint moment dizzier than anything that’s followed.

That means that, insofar as there’s something “evocative” about the Black Keys, there is a kind of poetry to the chapter of Brothers and El Camino. Instead of splintering, the duo recommitted and restarted with Brothers. Then, in that new focus, they quickly completed a companion album with a name that, at first glance, didn’t read so much like a statement. El Camino was chosen as a joke, really derived from just seeing an actual El Camino while on tour. But from there, you could pick it apart. The fact it translates to “The Road,” the fact they put a busted old van on the cover instead — another joke, but also a nod to their early touring days. There were little full circle Easter eggs there and in the stripped-down sound of El Camino, at the same time that the band’s decade of grueling hard work was now turning into triumph. You can now look back on Brothers and El Camino as that sort of stretch in a band’s career where they arrive at a point they were, in hindsight, always supposed to reach.

The other funny and sometimes perplexing thing about revisiting El Camino is trying to parse where, exactly, Black Keys would fit into any kind of music narrative from the last 20 years now. Though they seemed well-liked by critics for years, you wouldn’t really find many people arguing they were one of the great, important bands of the 21st century, or that Brothers and El Camino now stand as classics of their time. If you can set all that aside, though, there’s still something easy and enjoyable about El Camino, something still a little head-spinning remembering how weird it was when this album sky-rocketed the way it did. For a minute there, it was pretty fun to watch two smartass blues-rocker dudes from Akron take over the world.

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