Dan Auerbach has gone soft—which may be the best possible thing. When pressing play on Waiting on a Song, the newest album by the Black Keys guitarist and singer, there were a few things I expected to hear. I prepared to be bowled over by his signature effects-laden guitar attack. I looked forward to some pared-down, muscular blues chord structures. I steeled myself towards the inevitable vocals shouted slightly out of tune, which have always been my least favorite part of Auerbach’s style.
None of these were forthcoming. Waiting on a Song is a complete departure from his other work, in the best possible way. Although I’m a sucker for that blistering guitar, and was disappointed by the lack of it, this music doesn’t need it. There must be twelve or thirteen instruments on this record, each one used tastefully and cleverly. Auerbach’s softened croon and soothing but commanding baritone guitar form the backbone of the album. Also featured are glockenspiel, electric guitar, various strings, horns and organs. The songs are deceptively simple, their structures classic pop. It is in the intricacies of the arrangement and the production that they really shine. Dan Auerbach has long been a producer, but this is his greatest work yet in that capacity. Tiny melody and rhythm parts crop up at all the right times, particularly on “Stand by My Girl” and “Cherrybomb”—the latter of which is one of the album’s highlights, a tight jam that blends funk, blues, disco, and western movie music. This work is nothing if not impressively original, adding a new twist to every genre it incorporates.
Sometimes, though, that genre blending sounds ironic, or attention seeking, or self-consciously postmodern—at any rate, irritating. There are moments, particularly on “Show Me” and a couple others, when all the genre references and hints of other music feel too clever for their own good, as if Auerbach is just making sure that we know how much he knows about music. This too-sharp sense of irony sometimes bleeds over to the lyrics as well. The chorus to “Stand by My Girl” is a pure display of wit: “I’m gonna stand by my girl, don’t think I won’t / I’m gonna stand by my girl, because she’ll kill me if I don’t.” Good one, Dan—all those nagging women won’t know what hit them.
But even if the album sometimes disappears up one or another of its own orifices, Dan Auerbach is a master, and his soul is indomitable. Mellow though Waiting on a Song may be, its skillful production and jagged edges lend it an undercurrent of power and dynamism that is Dan Auerbach’s trademark. Maybe he’s gone soft, or maybe he’s just buried his ruggedness a little deeper.