The music world went crazy in March when The Black Keys—one of the most popular rock bands in America—released their first new single in five years, “Lo/Hi.” Before the end of the month, it had reached the top 10 of the Hot Rock Songs Charts, buoyed by the news of the band’s plans for an extensive North American tour beginning in September.
Composed of guitarist/singer Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney, The Black Keys remain at the pinnacle of rock stardom, despite taking an extended hiatus that included solo projects and producing other musicians’ work. Yet as has been consistently noted, they remain remarkably humble and down-to-earth. Auerbach and Carney attribute the success of their music to their hard work ethic and their modesty to their close families and humble origins in the Rust Belt city of Akron, Ohio. That’s all undoubtedly true, though there’s something else there too: their music has always evinced a deep, if implicit, search for God.
Auerbach’s and Carney’s story is a fascinating tale of small-town kids trying to make it in post-industrial America. The two met in elementary school in Akron. Both had a strong passion for the blues, and began jamming together while in high school. Both briefly attended university, but dropped out. They determined to try to make it in music, in part because the city’s declining rubber industry offered few career opportunities. Their debut album, The Big Come Up, was recorded entirely in Carney’s basement on an 8-track tape recorder in May 2002. From the beginning, their sound was one of raw blues that drew upon the likes of Delta bluesmen Muddy Waters, Junior Kimbrough, and R.L. Burnside. Reviewers declared that they seemed to have come right out of some late 1960s garage.
Though The Black Keys’ debut was critically well-received, they remained under the radar (and poor) for years. They toured the country in a 1994 Chrysler van. Their second album, Thickfreakness, was also recorded in Carney’s basement because they had to spend their meager savings on rent. Time named it the third best album of 2003. They hit the road again, this time in Europe, and actually lost $3,000 on the trip. When they were preparing their third album, they were forced to find a new recording location when the building that housed their basement studio was sold by its landlord. They made a makeshift studio in a former tire manufacturing factory in Akron, where they recorded the appropriately named Rubber Factory. Entertainment Weekly and The New Yorker both hailed it one of the best albums of 2004. In 2006, they released both Chulahoma: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough, an album of six covers by little known blues musician Junior Kimbrough, and Magic Potion, again recorded in Carney’s basement. All of these albums are true blues-rock gems, but none of them garnered serious national attention.
It was not until 2010, with the release of their sixth studio album Brothers, that they finally achieved national fame through such songs as “Tighten Up,” “Howlin’ for You,” and “Everlasting Light.” Brothers sold almost a million copies. They followed this success with El Camino in 2011, which included perhaps their most famous song, “Lonely Boy.” The album—and song—won multiple Grammys. Finally, after years of grueling work, they were stars. Their most recent album, Turn Blue, released in 2014, debuted at number one, cementing them as one of the greatest bands of the century so far.
Neither Auerbach nor Carney appear to have come from churchgoing families, but their music is surprisingly clean. They are also well-connected to their families and their hometown. From the beginning, their parents were their biggest supporters. Michael Carney, Patrick’s brother, has designed artwork for their albums. They say that their modesty and blue-collar persona has been preserved by families that would never allow them to be anything other than two guys from Akron. Despite these blessings, there is plenty of blues in the Black Keys, and this is where one can perceive the yearning for the transcendent.
Many of their songs warn of the evil stemming from illicit romantic affections. In “Keep Me,” Auerbach seems to pray to avoid some temptation:
Keep me clean,
Keep me warm,
Keep my soul away from harm,
Keep the night,
Keep the day,
Keep the in-between away.
Similarly in “Strange Desire,” he warns:
I don’t wanna go to hell,
But if I do,
It’ll be ’cause of you,
And a young man’s,
Gonna make mistakes,
Till he hits the brakes.
Much of The Black Keys’ music also deals with heartbreak, though often within a broader context of prayer and judgment for poor decisions. In “Hard Row,” Auerbach sings:
If you wanna go and leave your man
Go on, I’ll understand
But then the night gets dark, all is still
Pray for me, I know you will.
In “All Hands Against His Own,” he sings:
He found all hands against his own,
And no light from up above,
Just a dark and lonely road.
In “Sinister Kid,” Auerbach laments:
And that’s me, that’s me
The boy with the broken halo
That’s me, that’s me
The devil won’t let me be.
Auerbach seems aware, albeit dimly, of his own sinfulness and the impact of his poor choices. On one of his solo albums, recorded while on break from The Black Keys, he mourns:
God may forgive me, but that’s not enough
‘Cause I gotta live with myself till I’m dust.
This recognition of the effects of immorality reaches fever pitch on their last album in the song “Ten Lovers.” It’s likely a reference to Auerbach’s first marriage, in which he had one daughter and that ended in divorce in 2013. In a story hauntingly similar to those told by J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy, his former wife, Stephanie Gonis, attempted to commit suicide in front of their daughter and then almost burned their home down. She claimed Auerbach had abused her. Auerbach gained custody over their daughter. On “Ten Lovers,” he mourns:
When I hear them use your name
I get all choked up inside
It’s not only from the shame
It’s like 10 different lovers died
Except you’re still just a mile away
But there’s nothing left to say
Don’t leave us not in love again
Cause we might break instead of bend
I felt a little stain in the pouring rain
It washed away almost everything
If I found another love
They must be forever true
Cause if someone breaks this heart
Your old man right here is through
Heaven just seems so far away
When there’s nothing left to say
Don’t leave us not in love again
The little girl can’t comprehend
She had another dream that her mama’s gone
She’s alright, but you’re all wrong.
Given the context of marital distress that preceded the release of the album, the “little girl” who had a dream about mama being “gone” is probably a reference to his daughter’s nightmares about his wife’s breakdown. Acknowledging this heartbreaking reality makes it almost impossible not to weep when listening to the tune. It is especially lamentable given Auerbach’s previous love for Gonis. In “Unknown Brother,” recorded years before the divorce, Auerbach devotes an entire song to Gonis’s brother, who died in high school before Auerbach ever met him.
Carney likewise is divorced—he had married his sweetheart early in the band’s career. Their relationship struggled under the strain of his constant travel, and his wife cheated on him. They divorced after only a few years of marriage. Both Auerbach and Carney have said that their first marriages had much to do with societal pressure, as young men in their community were expected to settle down young. In this respect, too, are they symptomatic of the broader social trends troubling working-class America, which has higher divorce rates than do the coasts. Carney himself is the product of a divorced family. Both men have since remarried, Carney to the well-known musician Michelle Branch.
Temptations of the flesh, broken relationships, a fear that one cannot escape one’s sins or past—these are some of the dominant themes in The Black Keys’ corpus of music, which now spans almost 20 years. And inner conflict still troubles them—the most popular song on their last album, “Fever,” cites a sickness that is both a “dream” and form of slavery. Auerbach sings:
It used to be a blessing
But fever’s got me stressing
Realize I am to blame
But fever let me play the game.
These are the words of a man still struggling to understand himself and his battles, in search of, even if he doesn’t know it, God. Perhaps this explains why the music video for the song features Auerbach as a stressed, sweaty evangelical minister preaching to a small church.
The Black Keys are still producing great music. Their latest single contains the verse:
Nobody to love you
Nobody to care
If you die, nobody will hug you
No one to answer your prayer.
Their search for great meaning continues, even if they have yet to find it in Christianity and Christ.
Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for TAC.