“I’m old enough to know the game/But pushing buttons now is all that keeps me sane,” Dan Auerbach sings in “Outta My Mind,” the opening jolt on this strange, seductive album, through a spooky melange of spaghetti-Western guitars, funk drumming and oily reverb. The first line is plain enough: Auerbach, 36, has been a rock star for more than a third of his life, as the singer-guitarist-songwriter of the modern-blues duo the Black Keys. The second explains why Auerbach — a side-project fiend, with his own Nashville studio, who’s produced records for acts like Dr. John and Lana Del Rey — was compelled to form another new band. When the game gets weird, work is salvation. “Outta my mind,” he admits in the chorus, “but I made it.”
For Auerbach, the Arcs, a quintet, are an extended family that gives him room to stretch out. Multi-instrumentalist Leon Michels is a busy figure on New York’s neo-soul scene: He’s played horns in the Menahan Street Band and reinterpreted the Wu-Tang Clan with his own group, El Michels Affair, and toured with the Black Keys in 2010. Drummer Richard Swift, from the Shins, is also a touring musician for the Keys. Auerbach wrote most of the 14 songs on Yours, Dreamily, with Michels, but much of the album’s loopy noir — the psychedelic-Curtis Mayfield pathos of “Stay in My Corner”; the Afro-jazz streaks in “Velvet Ditch”; the dark crunch of “The Arc” — wouldn’t have been out of place, tightened and with less reverb, on the Black Keys’ last album, 2014’s adventurous Turn Blue.
Yours, Dreamily, takes what Auerbach does at his best, in and out of the Keys — confessional, texturally enriched blues propelled with garage-rock force — and adds a riveting jump in eccentricity. The crusty, Mellotron-like keyboard running through the paranoid hip-hop march “Put a Flower in Your Pocket” suggests a blaxploitation soundtrack scored by King Crimson. “Cold Companion” is a spare, lurching walk with bone-dry guitars and Auerbach’s rap-cadence singing until the chorus, which lights up with a sly harmony-vocal spin on the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman.”
The roaming haste with which the Arcs made this album – recording over two weeks in four studios — shows in places, mostly the lyrics. “Rosie (Ooh La La)” is a promising trip-hop trifle without much song. A rhyme like “The milk inside the fridge, it turned/The bridge between us, it burned,” in “Everything You Do (You Do for You)” suggests the kind of first-thought songwriting found on Neil Young’s lesser records.
But two of the best things about the Arcs’ first album come near the end. In the bleak R&B beauty “Chains of Love,” Auerbach hands the chorus to the female singers Mariachi Flor de Toloache, who haunt the space behind the beat and spindly guitars like a ghostly Shangri-Las. And in the stately finish, “Searching the Blue,” Auerbach returns to the urgency that drives him to start more bands and make records like this. “Is anything we do ever gonna last?” he sings. You’ll never know unless you press “record.”