Artists have a habit of creating art about art. No matter who and no matter what the medium, it seems that something about creating art turns the act itself into a potent muse. We can pick any number of examples at random from such varied sources as bestselling novelists (Stephen King’s On Writing, for instance), or the spate of movies-about-movies that have dominated the Oscars in recent years (La La Land, The Artist, Argo, and in some ways Birdman). And as for music, everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Rodgers & Hammerstein has sprinkled their songbooks with lyrics that contemplate the art of music and act of songwriting themselves. It is appropriate, then, and maybe even inevitable, that Dan Auerbach has done the same with Waiting on a Song.
Auerbach’s entire career, in a way, hinges around the celebration of songwriting as an act, with as much as the Black Keys borrow from retro influences. At its best, the Akron-based duo shred out surefire hits like “Tighten Up” and nostalgic deep-cuts like “Countdown,” from their debut album, The Big Come Up. At worst, the band become so indentured to their ancestors that the songs’ own identities become muddled, such as much of 2014’s Turn Blue.
Waiting on a Song, on its surface, may feel entirely different than anything Auerbach’s done before, but it adopts the same kind of engagement with an older sound, albeit more Americana than blues. Its best strengths and worst weaknesses bear a striking resemblance to those one might find on any Black Keys release. For any instance of smart engagement with its source material, there are others in which the past-facing sensibilities feel like an inhibition.
It should be said that Dan Auerbach is a great songwriter. Some of Waiting on a Song could be submitted as evidence to such. The title track is a fun song, one which will likely find a comfortable home on coffee shop playlists this summer. “Shine On Me” breezes about, something like a mashup of Roy Orbison and John Fogerty. The best of the album lies on Auerbach’s upbeat hooks and the strong arrangements behind him—it doesn’t hurt that he enlisted the help of some truly superb studio talent, like John Prine and Mark Knopfler, of Dire Straits.
But often this retrofitting falls flat. Without the big, arena-ready sound of the Black Keys for protection, much of Waiting on a Song ends up flitting by forgettably. While the lyrics of the title track sound hollow and almost insipid, like a laundry list of Americana imagery (hitching a ride, sitting around aimlessly), they at least arrive on the back of a cheerful melody. The same cannot be said for other tracks that warble in common clichés, like deceitful women (“Cherrybomb”) and the end of a romance (“Show Me”), neither of which features any particularly engaging hook or satisfying payoff.
In promoting the new album, Auerbach appeared on NPR’s All Songs Considered, talking about his Nashville studio, equipped with a great deal of “old-school” equipment, and curating a set for the program of the records that inspired Waiting on a Song. This playlist shows off Auerbach’s impeccably good taste—Al Green, Sam Cooke, and Danny O’Keefe—but also bears an unintended side effect. When lined up adjacently with the titans that influenced him, Auerbach’s newest songs feel self-conscious. Listening to the set, it’s somewhat disappointing when one of Auerbach’s tunes interrupts the steady flow of R&B and folk favorites.
Waiting on a Song was probably a lot of fun for Auerbach and company to create, and any music nerd can appreciate its intentions. While the album is not bad in the strictest sense of the word, very little of it turns out to be memorable. In conversation with its influences, it comes up short, rubbing at their elbows.