When artists get into a creative rut, they go to all sorts of strange, unconventional, and bat-shit-crazy lengths to unearth sources of inspiration. The Beatles went on a spiritual sojourn with the Maharishi to some bumfuck bailiwick in northern India, and came back with what was essentially The White Album. Prince, Diddy, David Bowie, and others would periodically re-invent themselves with different stage names and/or alter egos, in the hopes of staying one step ahead of the detriments of triviality. And so on and so forth.
So when Dan Auerbach, who some might say has strayed a bit in the last several years from his seminal best, decided to seek out the services of some of Nashville’s most talented musicians to collaborate with on his new solo record, it shouldn’t really have come as a surprise to anyone.
That being said, it is a bit brow-raising to consider (in hindsight, at least) that a contemporary rock god like Auerbach would solicit a collaboration with a troupe of 70-something year old guitarists and songwriters – legends though they are – in an effort to maintain the level of genius and progression that’s come to be expected of him.
Put it this way: Steph Curry might do some kind of a novelty, feel-good charity event with the likes of Bill Russell or Larry Bird, but he would never ask them to join the Warriors and play with him, like, for real.
That’s one way to look at it.
Another, completely different way to look at is that Dan – indeed maybe finding himself a little short on inspiration or creativity – decided to ring up a handful of Nashville’s musical luminaries and invite them in to write and record at his studio because, well, because he fucking could. These guys (Duane Eddy, John Prine, Bobby Wood, Gene Chrisman, Mark Knopfler, etc) are some of Dan’s musical heroes – not to mention some of the most respected artists in Music City – so why wouldn’t he jump at the opportunity to work with them?
At the very least, it’s refreshing to know that the relatively new rock superstar was willing to throw any and all expectations of ‘progression’ (or whatever you want to call it) out the window in order to get himself back into a place of personal contentment and happiness – which just so happened to be at home, amongst a host of friends and personal heroes, writing and recording non-stop in his studio.
“I kind of finally met a whole group of people with the same weird .. addiction,” he says, “… these guys [would] meet me in the studio at 9:30 in the morning, and we’d be there ‘til 2 am, working…”
He went on to say that the writing and recording process itself of Waiting on a Song – his follow-up release to 2015’s Keep it Hid – was life-changing, “like Christmas every day”, and that he couldn’t wait to get into the studio each morning and get to work.
As far as the finished product, the record is certainly not up to par with the gnarly, heavy drive of Keep it Hid, but at its very best it’s a fun, ultra-listenable album that’s guaranteed to leave you bobbing your head and singing along to the choruses after only a handful of run-throughs.
At its worst? Mmm, let’s not go there.
The album starts right off with the title track, Waiting on a Song, which is a feel-good gem full of devotedly honest, uncomplicated lyrics: I’ve been thinkin’ / I’ve been hummin’ / I’ve been pickin’ and I’ve been strummin’ / Just waiting, waiting on a song. No doubt one of the finest recordings on the album. And not to mention, it’s here that we get our first taste of Eddy’s twangy guitar, which is bursting at the seams with authentic Nashville pedigree.
From there, the record shifts into the chirpy horn sections and funky bass lines of Malibu Man; a fun, dance floor groove that seems to have been plucked straight out of a Sunset Blvd nightclub in its mid-70’s heyday; complete with cocaine, bell bottoms, and shoulder-shaking mustachioed dudes sporting gloriously masochistic perms.
Livin’ in Sin and Shine on Me – the album’s hit single – are two of the funnest tracks on the record, and will be the guaranteed tunes of choice this summer for more than a few bleached-blonde stoners as they cruise the Pacific Coast Highway looking for surf, sun, schwag, and bikini-clad chicks that are as loose as their worn-out loafers. It’s kind of difficult to believe these are Dan Auerbach songs, given his history of gritty, mud-soaked blues riffs, but hey — a good time is a good time, right? The only problem you might run into is not being able to get the impossibly fucking catchy chorus of Shine on Me out of your head.
King of a One Horse Town is another single (with a pretty sweet video) that boasts some slick verses and a neo-funk rhythm, but it’s a rather dark tune; probably most appropriate for those disconsolate night caps where you find yourself putting the finishing touches on a stout bottle of St. Ide’s, while negotiating the oddly-satisfying emotional conglomeration of self-loathing, self-pity, and self-righteousness.
Other Waiting highlights include Never in My Wildest Dreams, a sentimental, melancholic ukulele piece that might be Dan’s best imitation of a Jack Johnson song; Undertow, a smooth-as-silk groove which compliments Auerbach’s mesmerizing vocal abilities better than any track on the record [Would you dive for me, in the icy sea / Pry me free from this life I lead]; and Stand by My Girl, a damn good, masterstroke of a pop song that probably gave John Prine goosebumps as he sat listening in the control room. Along with the title track, easily one of the best songs on the record.
The inevitable dud comes in the form of Cherrybomb, which is catchy enough but has about as much substance as a Lindsay Lohan breakup text. It does include a ripping guitar solo on the outro, but it unfortunately comes and goes much, much too quickly.
And lastly, the record ends in a bit of a disappointing fashion with Show Me, a forgettable tune that – as impressive as it is from a production standpoint – is far from the quality that the Black Keys frontman is capable of producing.
All in all, despite what the pitchfork-carrying masses of hardcore Auerbach and Black Keys fans will surely be saying, Waiting on a Song is not a bad record. It’s polished and produced, to be sure, as it’s clear Dan likes to put his hours in behind the soundboard, but at it’s core the album is a refreshing retrogression back to a simpler time; a time when talented musicians and songwriters would get together, write, and play music without the foolish burden of having to hold themselves to any particular level of inventiveness, artistic progression, or musical creativity. As a wise young man once said, “Tradition is important … it reminds you where you came from. But more importantly, it lets you know where to go if you get lost.”