Dan Auerbach: “Keep it Hid”
One can’t help but wonder, whenever a prominent member of a successful rock band takes a working holiday to pursue a solo or a side project, exactly what his intentions are– and the success of the side project tends to be judged in light of whatever those intentions are perceived to be. Take the example of Jack White, whose initial ventures as co-leader of the four-piece Raconteurs was seen, at least at first, as a chance for the blues troubadour and guitar hero to free himself from the self-imposed aesthetic confines of his work with the White Stripes– to unchain himself from Meg long enough to paint with colors other than black, red and white. Though he may have been seeking liberation, his work with the Raconteurs has proven to be oddly confining– though they’ve made some very fine music, and allowed Jack to try a few things he couldn’t get away with on a proper Stripes album, there’s a strange sense in which the limitless possibilities and endless musical permutations of his albums with Meg are significantly reduced when he dons the Raconteurs mantle, as if their sonic palette, though more varied, is also more rigid.
The Black Keys have always been dogged by White Stripes comparisons, but Dan Auerbach is no Jack White, and his first venture without drummer Patrick Carney is not a Reconteurs album. Rather than step aside from his primary band’s signature sound, Auerbach seems more interested in expanding it with Keep it Hid, his solo debut. And that’s more than a little ironic– he’s gone from making music with a partner to making music by himself, and while he plays most of the instruments himself, the sound of Keep it Hid is bigger, broader than on any Black Keys album, sounding like the work of a fuller band rather than one man in the studio. (He is joined on some songs by background singers and guest musicians, but it’s still his show.)
On the one hand, the album reveals Auerbach to be the primary architect of the Black Keys’ aesthetic, as these songs are written very much from the same musical worldview. What makes the Keys great is that they’re inspired in equal measure by traditional blues and classic rock recordings, but also by indie rock; they play vintage music as filtered through several generations of offspring. The same is true here, but, at the same time, Auerbach proves himself to have broader musical interests than the Black Keys albums let on, and the result is a sweeping and eclectic album that touches on everything from country to psychadelic rock to garage punk, but Auerbach has absorbed enough of modern indie’s sensibilities to avoid sounding like a revivalist. He makes the music that he loves, and if that music happens to be very traditional, it’s never overly studied or particularly reverent.
At thirteen songs (and one track of studio clatter), Keep it Hid is an expansive album, but, in its own way, it’s a modest one, as well. That is, Auerbach doesn’t seem to have any agenda in mind here, other than to play the music that he loves, and perhaps wouldn’t quite fit on a Black Keys record. And so, the album is simply a masterful demonstration of craft, the work of a truly excellent singer, songwriter, musician, and producer, one who knows his way around a song and around the studio. And if it’s a rather dark, moody affair, it’s hardly an insular or a joyless one– Auerbach sees to that by keeping the music varied. Indeed, he has a veteran record-maker’s sense of pacing, even dividing the album very neatly into an A-side and a B-side, and he allows the music to flow freely, with the stark, gospel-tinged country hymn that opens the set (“Trouble Weighs a Ton”) giving way very naturally and organically to the crazed, carnival rock stomp of “I Want Some More.” He maintains a killer momentum for almost the duration of the record, only letting it sag a bit toward the end, when, at fourteen tracks, it begins to feel just the slightest bit too long. Had he cut the paranoid cha-cha of “When I Left the Room,” which drags a bit, the album would have been an even tighter, stronger affair.
But that’s a minor quibble, because the other dozen songs are all terrific. Indeed, one of Auerbach’s greatest assets, both with Carney and alone, is his no-frills approach to record-making, how there is no over-arching conceit or gimmick, just an album that’s entirely focused on the songs. And he’s a terrific songwriter– he’s obviously got a big and varied record collection, but he’s actually absorbed his influences rather than simply learn to copy them, so his country songs sound like they could be a hundred years old while his psychadelic numbers sound like they could be vintage 60s tunes, but with an energy and grit that’s entirely in the moment. His subject matter tends to be dark– “I Want Some More” is a crazed song of lust and obsession, “The Prowl” is about a stalker, and even “My Last Mistake,” the poppiest song here, has a depressive undercurrent– but his lyrics have more in common with world-weary country or gospel tunes than with angst-ridden indie or emo, particularly on the acoustic songs “Trouble Weighs a Ton” and “When the Night Comes,” which makes his music soulful and universal.
He stirs up quite a racket in the studio, too– one suspects that even Jack White would be proud of the organ-and-drums stomp of “I Want Some More.” It’s such a wonderful, accomplished album that one feels confident Auerbach could thrive on his own, were anything to ever happen to the Black Keys. Not that anyone would want it to come to that, of course– he and Carney have a raw, primal energy when they play together that Auerbach could never capture on his own. That said, Keep it Hid is a different sort of animal that nevertheless compares favorably to the best Black Keys albums, sounding more confident than 2008’s very-good but transitional Attack and Release and more consistent than Magic Potion. Listening to it, one can’t imagine the auteur having any intent other than cimply creating a killer record– and on that count, he succeeds widly.