Black Keys single forecasts worrying trajectory for upcoming album

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Artist Statement: A lot of the promotional material and packaging surrounding Ohio Players has a big old school bowling alley motif, so I wanted my art to go along with that. I ended up taking some bowling ball clip art I found, put it together with the Black Keys logo off of the new LP cover, and drew over them. It ended up being a nice little exercise in shading for me. All of my art is created with digital illustration tools in Photoshop, which makes manipulating layers and altering fine details far easier for me, especially compared to physical pencil and paper mediums.
Artist Statement: A lot of the promotional material and packaging surrounding Ohio Players has a big “old school bowling alley” motif, so I wanted my art to go along with that. I ended up taking some bowling ball clip art I found, put it together with the Black Keys logo off of the new LP cover, and drew over them. It ended up being a nice little exercise in shading for me. All of my art is created with digital illustration tools in Photoshop, which makes manipulating layers and altering fine details far easier for me, especially compared to physical pencil and paper mediums.
Chase Zagurski

Hot on the heels of a spectacular 2023 world tour, Akron-based alternative rock duo The Black Keys are gearing up to release their twelfth studio album. Set to drop on April 5, ‘Ohio Players’ is shaping up to be an extraordinarily dense and ambitious project for The Black Keys, featuring 14 tracks and extensive collaborations with English rock legend Noel Gallagher and indie singer-songwriter Beck. To drum up hype for the project, the duo dropped a headlining lead single, ‘Beautiful People (Stay High),’ giving listeners a taste of what’s coming. As a huge fan of The Black Keys, listening to this new song has me worried that the tone of the entire project is in jeopardy, as the song itself seems like an attempt to manufacture a pop rock crowd pleaser – an effort that may well end up pleasing the wrong crowd.

Hitting play, you’re treated to a layered and intriguing instrumental soundscape, full of funky pianos and brass and a super heavy garage rock percussion-guitar pairing – only to have it quickly sullied by vapid lyrical writing. The track’s faults lie squarely with its worryingly simplistic and repetitive lyrics. The verses are fine, but the bridge and chorus vocals are something to be heard – and for all the wrong reasons. They never stray into annoying territory, but they drag down the rest of the song in such a tragic way.

The contrasting sonic atmosphere this disconnect creates feels almost as if several different working projects were cannibalized to piece together this one, with the poppier chorus and bridge grafted onto some other complex instrumentation to push the result into hit single territory. The whole thing comes off as a desperate effort to replicate the energy and success of ‘Wild Child’ (the duo’s last lead single, which featured more pop rock elements and turned out to be a major hit) without putting in any of the effort or including any of the niceties that made that track great. Even taking the context of some of the band’s previous pop rock singles into consideration (the aforementioned ‘Wild Child,’ as well as ‘Go’ from the 2019 album ‘Let’s Rock’), the vibe of ‘Beautiful People (Stay High)’ just seems off; it feels like too much of a departure from the niche that The Black Keys have settled into over the past few years.

To their fans, The Black Keys are known for keeping garage rock and, more importantly, blues rock sensibilities alive in an age of increasing digitization and impersonality in the rock music sphere – a vibe that is a far cry from the almost saccharine, soundtrack of the summer-style bloat that ‘Beautiful People (Stay High)’ represents. This may indicate that the duo are straying too far into territory outside of the band’s genre purview in search of broadening their listener base. High accessibility in music is never an inherently bad thing – songs become widely popular for a reason – but when that mass appeal aesthetic runs perfectly counter to what your act is all about, you might start losing listener support and artistic integrity.

In short, ‘Beautiful People (Stay High)’ not only fails to meet my expectations for a Black Keys release, but leaves me worrying that, if they don’t stick to their roots and stick the landing on this increasingly ambitious project, my favorite band’s next release will turn out to be a tonally bankrupt flop. Another single dropped on February 9 (a cover of William Bell’s ‘I Forgot to Be Your Lover’) has my hopes up slightly, and I shall remain as optimistic as I can  until that long removed release day, but a little bit of concern will always be there until the LP is in my hands.

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