ALBUM REVIEW: Marcus King turns up volume, mass appeal on ‘El Dorado’

There’s something powerful (and borderline irresistible to listeners and label execs) about a younger person with a lived-in voice. Marcus King certainly has one: weathered, expressive, and surprisingly nuanced, it is just one of many tools in his embarrassingly large arsenal of musical gifts that extends to excellent guitar-playing and songwriting. King has earned high-profile fans in Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton, and while the sum of his talents is on display throughout El Dorado (out Jan. 17 via Fantasy Records), King’s latest album, it’s his soulful singing that emerges as the true star of the show.

Recorded in Nashville, Tennessee at Black Keys’ frontman Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Studio, El Dorado is a new study on old genres that play to King’s strengths: country-soul, classic rock, blues, and southern R&B. King and Auerbach (who also produced the album) cowrote the 12 songs in a three-day burst of creativity, with some assistance from living songwriting legends Paul Overstreet, Ronnie Bowman, and Pat McLaughlin. Auerbach’s warm, easy production is tailor-made for the material and the players, which comprise King’s trusty band and an all-star cast of studio musicians, including drummer Gene Chrisman and keyboard player Bobby Wood of the revered Memphis Boys (you know their playing from “Son of a Preacher Man” and “Suspicious Minds,” among other classics). 

At it’s best, El Dorado offers up some transcendent moments: “Wildflowers & Wine” is pure southern soul, its slightly stoned vibe marked by crisp drums, warm backing vocals, and a supple guitar solo so clean that someone lets out an audible, exclamatory ‘Woo!’ on the take. “Beautiful Stranger” is a gentle country-soul ballad that plays to King’s singing and guitar-playing strengths; “Say You Will” is the most vintage Auerbach of the bunch, riding a fuzzy riff straight out of the Black Keys’ playbook, white-hot soloing, and a driving groove that would fit right in on Sturgill Simpson’s Sound & Fury. “Turn It Up” is another highlight, a top-notch barroom rave-up with great interplay between King and the backing vocalists.

Where El Dorado suffers – even, to an extent, on its high points – is when it feels too focus-grouped. Record labels have ample experience selling rootsy, soulful rock-oriented records, and there are times that the formula for doing so feels almost too obvious in the music. There’s the statement of intent song, the blues-rock barnburner, the sleepy country ballad, the obligatory future first dance wedding song, et al. Lyrically, King and his writing cohorts can fall back too easily on genre tropes – with so many great ones already in existence, does the world need another chronicle of the ups and downs of whiskey benders? On an album so full of wonderful detail and performances – and that potent, pliable voice – the generalities feel strangely lazy. Maybe there is a downside to writing all the songs over a three-day span.

But for every moment of frustrating clichés, there are another two that showcase King’s magnificent gifts. At the end of the day, this is a record crafted for mass appeal without going pop, and it succeeds far more than it struggles. With the pure amount of talent on offer from King and his supporting cast, it’s hard to imagine El Dorado not reaching its intended audience – and ultimately creating the larger one King deserves.

The Marcus King Band brings El Dorado to the Fonda Theatre in a few weeks on Friday, January 31! Get your tickets now.

Words by Andrew Ledford