"Watch what you say," sings guitarist Dan Auerbach as the Black Keys' killer new album, Brothers, draws to a close. "The devil is listening. He's got ears that you wouldn't believe."
They would need to be huge indeed take in all the sounds, styles and sentiments summoned on the recording. Caught somewhere between the hazy twilight roots-music panorama of Ryan Adams and the reverb-laden psychedelia of My Morning Jacket, The Black Keys stake out turf that is distinctly its own.
That's quite a transformation if you're still used to the primal blues and boogie that Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney used as an initial calling card for The Black Keys. The nasty, scrappy sound of the duo's early Fat Possum albums has evolved considerably in recent years. 2008's Danger Mouse-produced Attack & Release opened up The Black Keys' music to more soul-serving psychedelia. Side projects for Auerbach (the fine solo album Keep It Hid) and Carney (the band Drummer) along with a collaborative hip-hop endeavor titled Blakroc probably helped set the stage for Brothers.
But the new album is both a retreat and an expansion. Danger Mouse returns to produce Tighten Up, a party soul piece that quickly loosens to a jittery, rough-cut bounce. Beyond that, Auerbach and Carney take things largely on their own by incorporating some of the broader, bolder soundscapes from Attack & Release into a leaner duo framework.
Soul references abound in such a matrix. The album-opening Everlasting Light has Auerbach singing in a Prince-like falsetto over a jagged, swampy guitar line, and a cover of Jerry Butler's 1968 hit Never Gonna Give You Up swells with keyboard ambience, fuzzed-out bass and guitar melodies that come wrapped in vintage soul devotion. The results approximate Adams' wistful Americana contemplations more than the Butler original.
But The Black Keys also stake out some mighty darkness on Brothers. Ten Cent Pistol, a tale in which "a jealous heart did retaliate" begins with a rolling drum pattern accentuated by maracas and a guitar lead that sounds like Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac channeled through Wilco.
Blurring all these journeys further is The Go Getter, a mutated blues that bounces about in an echo chamber full of twisted keyboard colors, oddly punctuated drum grooves and a humid Southern air to give the tune a genuine spookiness.
Similarly moody is I'm Not the One, which is steeped in Rhodes-style keyboards and wild, choral-like effects that heighten an early-'70s, deep pocket-style soul attitude.
In short, this is a move back to the shadows for The Black Keys. But the sound has shifted. Before, Auerbach and Carney bashed about in the darkness on their own. On Brothers, they have invited in a bigger musical universe before turning out the lights.