When I was in high school, a good friend of mine drove a 1970s-era El Camino. She was pretty. The car, a utilitarian beast smeared with unflattering dirty brown and yellow paint, was not. Of course, Chevrolet's El Camino never pretended to be anything it wasn't. It was a particular—and peculiar—kind of vehicle. Namely, a car that thought it was a pickup, with two seats in front and a long, truck-like bed stretching out behind it. I imagine it was an immensely useful vehicle on the farm where my friend lived. Going to prom in it? Not so much.
It's not hard for me, then, to understand why Akron, Ohio, natives Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney—boyhood friends who eventually formed The Black Keys—might have chosen to name their seventh album after just such a vehicle. Like Chevy's not-so-pretty category buster, this increasingly influential garage-rock band boasts a minimalist, down-and-dirty utilitarian attitude. And, amazingly, it wouldn't have sounded a bit out of place blaring from the windows of an actual Chevy El Camino in, say, 1974.
So pay no mind whatsoever to the picture of the Dodge Caravan on this album's cover; El Camino has now morphed into a state-of-the-art retro-chic vehicle propelling The Black Keys to massive critical acclaim and four more Grammy awards. After toiling away in rock obscurity for the better part of a decade, Auerbach and Carney are now being hailed in many quarters as not the past, but the future of rock 'n' roll.
The predominant theme of El Camino, as we'll see more of below, is sorting through feelings of romantic rejection after loitering too long in unhealthy relationships. Occasionally in that emotional morass, Auerbach has some lucid moments. On "Little Black Submarines," for instance, he longs to think clearly again ("Everybody knows/That a broken heart is blind/ … Operator, please/Patch me back to my mind").
"Sister" seems at points to empathize with someone who's been emotionally mistreated. "Sister, sister what they did to you," we hear. "Did they take and try to break/A heart that long?/It's so wrong." Elsewhere on that track, Auerbach chastises, "You took advantage of/The one who showed you love." On "Stop Stop," a man holds up the resilience of his love as the reason a woman shouldn't have spurned him: "I hounded you forever/But you never saw/This love was so strong it should'a/Been against the law." Likewise, on "Lonely Boy" we hear, "I came to love you/Am I born to bleed?"
The biggest gear-grinder on El Camino is that many of its songs revolve around men who unwisely and knowingly choose to stay in relationships with women who hurt and manipulate them. "Lonely Boy" has a would-be suitor pining away even though the object of his affection has nearly destroyed him ("But I came to love you anyway/So you pulled my heart out/And I don't mind bleeding"). "Run Right Back" includes the confession, "She's the worst thing/I've been addicted to," but nevertheless, "I run right back/Run right back to her."
"Dead and Gone" finds a man telling a woman who leaves him feeling "dead and gone" that "I'll go anywhere with you." Similar dysfunction lurks on "Hell of a Season." There, the singer compares his relationship with a woman to infernal suffering ("In this hell of a season/Give me more of a reason/To be with you"). Again, he stays and waits, despite the suffering she inflicts ("It's my curse/I can't reverse/I'm still waiting here for you").
We're not done yet. More of the same turns up on "Stop Stop" ("You tear me all apart/Then act so warm/Like being cooled by the rain/In the eye of a storm") and "Nova Baby" ("All this love of mine/All my precious time/You take it 'cause you/Don't know what you want").
No wonder, then, that album closer "Mind Eraser" longs for something, anything to dull the pain ("When I need to replace her/I am the mind eraser/Anything goes, yeah, anything goes"). Auerbach confesses, "Got this sin in our brain/But she ain't gonna see me again/See me again, this I know/But oh, deep down I can't let go." And "Gold on the Ceiling" adds a drug metaphor to the suffering with, "Clouds covered love's/Barb-wired snare/Strung up, strung out/I just can't go without."
Riding around in The Black Keys' El Camino yields neither despair nor disgust. But while listening to its 11 songs, I increasingly felt a sense of desperation as I listened to a long line of wounded and earnest men clinging to relationships that are tearing their hearts to shreds. The quixotic, sad-sack protagonists in these songs know better, but still they submit to quite a lot of abuse in their futile tilting at romantic windmills.
A collection of songs like these could, I suppose, prove cathartic for romantic rejectees who identify with the failures they feature. But I'd say wallowing might easily displace that catharsis long before your iPod runs out of gas. There's little here that's liable to offer such lovelorn martyrs a healthier perspective on their largely self-inflicted wounds.