posted: May 13, 2014
Before the May 13, 2014 release of Turn Blue, the Black Keys’ eighth studio album, the Ohio-borne duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney released a tour itinerary. It was one befitting of one of the biggest rock bands in the country—a band that wins Grammy Awards and appears on gossip sites such as TMZ mocking Justin Bieber—and included stops at most of our nation’s famous basketball arenas.
Turn Blue, however, is not an album built for arenas.
It’s still the Black Keys, in that this is still a Midwestern band steeped in meaty heartland blues. Only this is the Black Keys turned down to…heartbroken. “Dance all night because people they don’t want to be lonely,” a clearly wounded-sounding Auerbach sings on album opener “Weight of Love.” But where the band is heading certainly isn’t straight to the dancefloor. The nearly seven-minute cut could well be the soundtrack to a film whose antihero is the boy sitting alone on the top bleacher in the gymnasium. Guitar solos weep, and then fade, and starlight atmospheres are mellow, as if they’re reflecting off of a disco-ball moving in slow motion.
This—and the album itself—is more Pink Floyd than the sweaty bar band obsessed with the Mississippi blues that the Black Keys once were. It’s somber, quite pretty, and will no doubt confuse some listeners that preferred the ease with which the band punched the accelerator and found a hook on its prior two efforts. The song isn’t an outlier, it’s the Turn Blue pacesetter, and only the eleventh and final track truly deviates from the tone.
Of course, the Black Keys never exactly were a band operating with blinders on. If it’s big choruses and swoony ballads you’re after, Kings of Leon are committed to working, working, working, and working that formula to death. While the Black Keys are still billed as a duo, producer/chameleon Danger Mouse is now more or less a member of the group. He pulls triple duty as co-writer, co-producer, and player on nearly each one of these cuts, and the middle-of-the-night comedown he works in his project the Broken Bells seeps its way into Turn Blue.
Only the Black Keys take a more organic, soulful approach. One would be hard-pressed to find any sort of review or preview of Turn Blue that doesn’t reference Smokey Robinson. Auerbach’s voice has never been so pliable. Guitars bend, effects get trippy, and there’s a hint of gospel on “Waiting on Words.” “In Time” mixes in even more odd turns. A dirty, loungey horn section punctuates the beat, handclaps are more forceful than communal, and demented hits on the keyboard seem to arrive without warning. Auerbach, it seems, learned much from his time working with Dr. John.
While the Black Keys proved on 2011’s smash El Camino that they weren’t going to stick to one genre, the album moved through garage and glammy twists with exuberance. On Turn Blue, it’s attention to detail that’s paramount. Characters mull over dead but not-forgotten relationships, as the album is a document of defeated emotional fallout rather than drama. (For those interested in such tidbits, the effort is said to have sprung from the dissolution of Auerbach’s marriage.)
It’s grim, even when the band flashes some rock grit. “It’s Up to You Now” is full of sludgy explosions reminiscent of early 70s metal, the song constantly exploding on itself. The keyboard is sprightly on “10 Lovers,” but the guitars are turned down, clearly not ready to match the mood.
Ultimately, the songs that pack that most life feel less inspired. The organ brims throughout “Fever,” but in the larger context of Turn Blue, the brightness is false. Compounding matters, the Black Keys were never poets, and the open space between the beats doesn’t do the band any favors.
“Gotta Get Away” is cute, but tacked on at the end, it’s a throwaway, a hit-the-road breakup anthem that largely feels like a roll with an old fling—in this case, straight-up blues rock.
The surprise is that the Black Keys are pretty adept at wallowing, which pays off for those in the mood for a breakup record. The title track is a mini-orchestra in its own right, a time-shifting journey of wormy synths, redemptive keyboards, call-and-response backing choir, and circular guitar melody that’s caught in a descendant loop. “Bullet in the Brain” finds some spring in a ripped-from-the-gutters bass line, and “Year in Review” pairs rattlesnake rhythms with Italian choral samples fit for a eulogy.
“Why you always wanna love the ones who hurt you?” Auerbach asks at the song’s start, and while the guitars find a bit of room to soar, the effect is more Bond soundtrack than arena rocker. As for the question Auerbach asks, Turn Blue doesn’t really present any answers but lets the Black Keys thrive as sonic explorers rather than deep thinkers.–Todd Martens