Some veterans have a quality that consistently follows them around throughout their careers and, boy, is Dr. John one of those veterans. This quality is his severe musical awareness, both of his psychedelic, socially conscious past and his streamlined view of the present. Locked Down doesn’t go without elementary comparisons to Dr. John’s music during the 1970s, he’s 71 years-old for pete’s sake. There are two worlds that collide: the time-glancing, realizingly dated contexts of Dr. John’s lyrics and the suitably modern-classic feel of the instrumentation and production. In the quest of modernization, Dr. John made an extremely logical choice of guiding for Locked Down, teaming up with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, who played guitar and produced the album. This helps Dr. John know where his place is now and actually allows him a suitable spot in his field once again, and while The Black Keys’ concept of “bringing back blues rock” is a somewhat rocky one, Dan Auerbach actually does just that by supporting someone who was actually there in its modern formation and perception.
Putting Dr. John’s classic 1968 Gris-Gris next to Locked Down is the real thinker left on the table. The similarities are sparse, but times have changed and artists have changed — it’s gotten easier to hear, but harder to listen. This puts Dr. John in a predicament shared by long-time peers, figuring out how to balance roots while staying relevant, and with age, the lack of keeping up can become the downfall. Instead of singing songs about unfortunately tanned and uneducated human beings on television, he takes a time-universal perspective, that we has a society haven’t stopped being bad and have yet to be properly enlightened. “Revolution,” surrounded by woodwind jauntiness, puts on the supposed shoes of Nixon-era political activism that almost comes off as an old soul’s vision of how little things have changed. But as the song goes Dr. John suggests that isn’t the end of it, upholding the idea that we are “locked down” as human beings oppressed to our own evils.
The album was certainly a team effort, as Dan Auerbach’s oversight of Locked Down is tough to ignore. The straight-forward guitar style and classically clean tone of the instruments has been dominated by The Black Keys for the last couple years now, and this puts the “Night Tripper” at bay in a controlled environment that’s accessible and extremely easy to listen to, which is where the album sometimes corners itself. It’s so controlled that Dr. John’s quirkiness and heavy piano usage has gone by the wayside for a one-track blues rock approach that has previously been manufactured by the production choices and guitar work. Yes, it all works and it’s competent, but fans of his very early work might not get as much out of it as someone unfamiliar with Gris-Gris or even In The Right Place a current day Black Keys listener, which is a far more likely find these days.
Locked Down has a lot of finely crafted moments that feel like Dan Auerbach and Dr. John really made something neat. “Kingdom of Izzness” builds through a smooth electric organ spree commanded by Dr. John–it’s sly, playful, and lyrically one of the album’s strongest track. The moments when Dan Auerbach is leering in the background just seems to be the most complimenting amount of support for John. This definitely goes for “My Children, My Angels,” which is mostly piano driven and feels the least Black Keys-touched, and even though Dan Auerbach’s harmonizing vocals are fairly audible, he adds something to Dr. John that makes complete sense. If Locked Down could have gone even further in the direction of showing how great of a pianist Dr. John is rather than combining the both of them together, we would have had a hell of a comeback album. What has resulted isn’t as satisfying, but was definitely an experiment that paid off for both of the artists because it still comes off as very timeless.
Tom Waits had a similar situation last year with Bad As Me; there was a streamlined, more accessible touch to the album that, in the end, made a lot of sense. The thing that differs between the two is the overarching artistry found was still very much Tom Waits. It would have been more apt to not have Dr. John’s name in the forefront on the album as it is. Instead replacing it with perhaps a band name, or simply just “Dr. John & Dan Auerbach.” This album shows a lot of heart from the both of them and they work great together. People shouldn’t expect a “completely Dr. John” record, but there is a lot to enjoy from the simplicity and overall throwback feel to Locked Down that provides a positive and hopeful experience.