There are times when Saturday Night Live is having a rough night, one where the timing’s off from start to finish, the host flubs their lines or breaks character in a totally unfunny way, and the big group hug that takes place onstage while the credits roll is more of a consoling embrace than a congratulatory one. In those instances, the musical guest has the unique opportunity to break out as the star of the show and upstage the host, making every bland Weekend Update joke or try-hard sketch worth it for those two songs alone. If Jay Pharoah couldn’t get the audience to laugh at his Obama impression on that particular episode, maybe Haim would’ve swooped in and saved the day. If Ben Affleck faltered, Kanye was there to catch him with “Black Skinhead.” It’s all about balance and give-and-take when something is off in Studio 8H, and as SNL is the cornerstone of live TV, there’s nothing we can do but watch the trainwreck roll out.
That didn’t happen on SNL this week. If anything, the Black Keys brought down SNL, and they brought down SNL fast.
To say the Black Keys are caught in the crosshairs of a strange career moment wouldn’t be far from the truth. El Camino was a major hit for them back in 2012 and served as a pivotal album, one that fueled the Akron rock duo’s transition from selling out sweaty clubs to headlining arena tours of their own. Something was off as El Camino grew and “Lonely Boy” became a radio staple: the massive shows they were playing banked on the strength of Brothers and the earlier fan favorites of their career, while the new stuff left Patrick Carney scrambling over his drum lines and Dan Auerbach flubbing up the timing of “Little Black Submarine.” The record was stronger than the live show for the first time, but it didn’t matter as they toured El Camino into the ground.
Now, Turn Blue is about to drop, and the singles they’ve released, despite the prank calls they’ve made to their label and “Fever”‘s Bible-thumping video, are mediocre at best. The driving, addictive heartbeat of “Howlin’ for You” and the unapologetic rock explorations of Magic Potion and Attack and Release are long gone–or at least they’re absent from what we’ve heard of Turn Blue so far. To expect a riotous, game-changing performance from Auerbach and Carney on SNL on the eve of their record’s release would be to ignore the new stuff they’ve thrown our way, and it’s hard to expect the best when they’re output has inspired complacent “mehs” more than anything else.
That said, if their SNL performance was supposed to be the appetizer of The Black Keys’ record drop week, “Fever” and “Bullet In The Brain” were lukewarm jalapeño poppers that failed to get us salivating over the main course ahead.
On their own, Auerbach and Carney were fine, more or less: they set about the straightforward, frills-free “Fever” with set jaws and dead stares, only to be upstaged by the banshee-falsetto that came in with the back-up vocals on the chorus. What a weird choice, covering up Auerbach’s perfectly likeable tenor with a nasal screech that’d put a Muppet to shame! Maybe that was a mixing issue, but it was enough to frame “Fever” in such a way that it more closely resembled an earnest high school Battle of the Bands performance than the latest material from one of the most popular rock bands in the United States.
“Bullet In The Brain” suffered along the same lines. Charlize Theron introducing them while sporting a thin layer of fake whale blood from the skit prior was the most interesting part of the five minutes that followed, despite Auerbach and Carney’s best efforts to look remotely interested in the song at hand. “Bullet” possessed a punch “Fever” severely lacked and the cranked volume was enough to spike the blood sugar of the set, but on the whole, “Bullet In The Brain” and “Fever” were two unremarkable performances from a formerly remarkable band.
Despite the unfortunate SNL performance, it should be noted that The Black Keys deserve the acclaim they’ve achieved, and that they’ve truly crafted some of the best rock songs to reach the masses over the course of the past decade and change. That said, if “Fever” and “Bullet In The Brain” can’t shine under the spotlight that’s been trained on them when interest in their next big move is at its peak, it doesn’t say much for Turn Blue and the performances that’ll dot the long road ahead for The Black Keys. Turn Blue could do brilliantly and the tour behind it will likely sell out arenas once more, but until Auerbach and Carney can muster the glory of their genius in the studio and do their songs justice in a live setting, we’ll just throw Brothers on repeat again.
Twitter was a mixed bag when it came to the SNL treatment of “Fever” and “Bullet In The Brain,” and for every “OMG THE BLACK KEYS *KILLED IT!!!1!* [heart-eyed emoji]” there was a side-eye emoticon in the wings. Get into the peanut gallery run-down of The Black Keys on SNL on the next page.
What in the holy hell is up with that background “singer” for The Black Keys on #snl?
— Dave (@cardGA) May 11, 2014
Our vote? Sorcery.
The two unofficial Black Keys are more audible than the two official ones on this generic rock song. #snl
— Thierry (@tcote) May 11, 2014
Hard to disagree with this.
People are ragging pretty heavily on The Black Keys SNL performance last night. What were they expecting, a riff? Emotion? Come on.
— ID Wolff (@idWolff) May 11, 2014
Given that riffs are an intrinsic rock ‘n’ roll element, yeah, kind of.
Catching The Black Keys on SNL has me playing Brothers at 1:30am.
— Andrés R (@FunkyFrijoles) May 11, 2014
That’s a fair consolation prize!
— Brodie Alexander (@BrodieAlexander) May 11, 2014
We’d call that a burn, but mad love for the SNL house band.
Why is this cat from the Black Keys playing the guitar in the background with a trenchcoat but no shirt? #snl
— coach Dubb (@coachDubb206) May 11, 2014
FASHION THAT’S WHY
Whoa, I really don’t like the Black Keys at all. They are very slappable. #SNL
— Sandy Teich (@queenofattolia) May 11, 2014
Justin Bieber, are you hiding behind a fake Twitter account?
— doppelfarter (@doppelfarter) May 11, 2014
OK we weren’t too stoked with Carney’s performance either, but NO VIOLENCE.
Death, taxes and The Black Keys sounding horrid on SNL every two years or so.
— Steve Lepore (@stevelepore) May 11, 2014
Time is a flat circle.
— Julian Kiani (@JulianKiani) May 11, 2014
Pretty sure you can’t swing a cat without hitting a Genius in horn-rimmed glasses …
@theblackkeys are on SNL tonight. Sex.
— Dreeeewww Chainz (@drew_howland) May 11, 2014
Those are … two different things.
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