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You Must Have a Young Dad: The Black Keys Act Their Age on "Ohio Players"

Dad Rock


  1. (often derogatory) a type of classic rock music that tends to appeal to adults, often played by middle-aged musicians

In 2007, small-time music blog Pitchfork published a particularly blistering review of Wilco's sixth studio album, Sky Blue Sky. This review, written by 28 year-old upstart Rob Mitchum, would garner some pretty serious attention, due to it's harsh, quotable critique of the indie sleaze giant's latest release. Mitchum criticized Sky Blue Sky for being "an album of unapologetic straightforwardness," stating the album's softer, mundane inclinations "nakedly [exposed] the dad-rock gene Wilco has always carried but courageously attempted to disguise." This quote would bubble over and not only popularize Mitchum's review, but also come to characterize the band's body of work, though Wilco's lead singer Jeff Tweedy would look remember Mitchum's words being “unflattering and hurtful," as he told Esquire in 2014.

Mitchum's review was originally intended as a dig on Sky Blue Sky's complacent and almost haphazard construction, due largely in part to the classic rock inspired sound that had begun to creep into the band's sound, as well as the less than relatable subject matter of being in your 40's, having kids, and building healthy communication with your significant other. Now, almost 20 years since his coining of the term, "dad rock" and the "dad" prefixed sub culture have defined a generational shift in style, music and pop culture, from dad bods to dad jokes, all the way up to dad rap (if you stretch it hard enough).

Categorized by bulky tennis shoes, worn out jeans, and a deep, unnatural appreciation for the 70's, dad rock has dominated the indie and alternative stations since its introduction in the 2000's. Bands like Franz Ferdinand, The White Stripes, and America's Sweethearts, The Black Keys, all became poster children for the bluesy dad rock sound that we have to come associate with the early 'oughts and on. But with the passage of time, the dad rock becomes the geezer rock, and the tunes you couldn't relate to at first slowly (or hurriedly) start to make a whole lot more sense, as Mitchum experienced with Sky Blue Sky when he reached Tweedy's age at the time of release. His 28 year-old self couldn't relate to the themes of aging, marriage, and parenthood Wilco was tapping into, just as young people don't particularly connect with geezer rock bands' comeback albums or old dudes with dated opinions about new music.

However, a balance can be struck; a sweet equilibrium between nostalgia, novelty and nuance when releasing new music under the dad rock umbrella. The problems lots of jaded bands run into is putting out an album either too specific to their now older audience to draw in younger ears, or conversely, putting together a record too catered to younger listeners to keep their established audience interested. Bon Jovi ran into these issues with 2016's This House Is Not For Sale, Fall Out Boy with 2018's Mania; Bon Jovi suffered from preachiness and "get off my lawn"-ness, while Fall Out Boy tripped themselves up on their own success, opting for a harsh right turn into Sheeran-esque power pop ballads. These bands try to stay fresh and stay young, but end up a geriatric caricature of themselves in the process. But The Black Keys? America's Sweethearts stay the course.

The Black Keys' 12th studio album, Ohio Players became available everywhere on Record Store Day, April 5, after initially teasing a new release on New Years Day. The Keys' latest record is another shallow dive back into the trademark Black Keys style of play, further distancing themselves fromTurn Blue's psychedelic waves of grain, the album that drove the wedge between Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney. Long before their short-lived split, the Akron boys had found themselves caught up in the groove of making radio-commercial friendly backing tracks. After their breakout hits from 2010's Brothers and their 2011 smash success followup, El Camino, The Black Keys had done all they could to remove themselves from the shadow of the stripped-down Delta blues of The White Stripes, pigeonholing themselves in the process. Since reuniting, Carney and Auerbach have completed three true to form albums, 2019's "Let's Rock", 2021's Delta Kream, and the 2022's Dropout Boogie. Each of these releases were met with roughly the same reception; a multitude of platitudes that can be roughly summarized to "these are Black Keys albums."

The dad-rock hustlers spent the months leading up to release day pumping out Cartoon Network bumper style promo pieces in preparation for Ohio Players, poking fun at their age, their music, and their fanbase's changing demographic, all while asking "hey, remember when we did that?" They even brought back Derrick T. Tuggle for the "On The Game" music video, who you may remember as the man that made the "Lonely Boy" video what it is. From the moment they announced an album, The Black Keys dove head first into a stew of facetious, tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation, cracking wise in a series of TikTok's and Instagram reels revolving around The Keys and their disillusion with Gen Z. Starring The Black Keys as themselves and actresses Bella Podaras and Emma Milani as two detached bowling alley employees. The four engage in a series of humorous generational headbutting, ultimately leading the youngin’s to grasp the full scope of America’s Sweethearts multigenerational appeal and boundless charm.

Ohio Players does not, by any means, set out to reinvent the wheels on The Black Keys tour bus. While formulaic and relatively unadventurous, it's certainly not a stale record. It's packed with plenty of radio friendly tracks, including it's Hot 100 worthy lead single "Beautiful People (Stay High)," but finds plenty of opportunities drop old-dude-drinking-at-the-end-of-the-bar wisdom bombs on songs like "I Forgot To Be Your Lover," and "On The Game." The record builds its instrumentals around Easy Eye Sound's now trademark country-western cowboy blues , still managing to stir in Carney's pop drumming and a small taste of every single Auerbach side project. Ohio Players is a simple album with simple tunes, leaning heavily into the idea that The Black Keys are far beyond their days as an obscure garage blues two-piece. However, between all the bowling memorabilia and old white guy jokes, there is an air of maturity, however slight.

Looking deeper, past the thinly veiled young folk jokes, there lies an understanding, an epiphany of sorts, that The Black Keys have come to. Over the course of twelve albums, a break up and several side projects, the Akron boys have come to appreciate their place in the dad rock archetype, and recognize their influence as figureheads of modern rock 'n roll. The Black Keys know what works for them and they know what their audience wants to hear, so why fix it if ain't broke? To further quote Mitchum, just as we all become our dads, we all eventually come to dad rock. But in the case of The Black Keys, rather than follow in the unflattering footsteps of Mitchum’s beloved Wilco, Auerbach and Carney are more than content to play the parts of the fun loving, party-hardy older brothers, clad in designer sunglasses and suave two-tone cowboy boots.

Rob Lucchesi

The Black Keys


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