REVIEW: The Black Keys – ‘Turn Blue’

Turn Blue

Artist: The Black Keys
Album: Turn Blue
Genre: Rock
Label: Nonesuch Records

Before getting into the bulk of my review of The Black Keys’ Turn Blue, I’d like to get something out of the way.

So we’ll start at the end, where the 11-track album closes with the completely tacked-on country-rock tune “Gotta Get Away,” a track so lazy and misplaced that even given its proper home on a recent Kid Rock release, would still be that record’s worst song.

So, yeah, it’ll probably be their biggest hit yet.

A move to appeal to the country crowd makes sense given the genre’s wild popularity these days, but the song is such a stark contrast from the rest of the album that, unless they’re simply looking to expand their already massive fan base by selling a few million $1.29 downloads to Jason Aldean fans and make an appearance at the CMT Awards, I just don’t see the point. So all the song really does is end the album on a sour note that spoils any goodwill built up by the good stuff — which, in Turn Blue‘s case, is the rest of the album.

While the band closes the album with its weakest track, they open it with a song that will go down as a highlight of their entire discography. And perhaps it’s no coincidence that the gap between 2011’s El Camino and True Blue is the longest of the band’s career, as it’s clear from the opening chords of the seven-minute album-starter “Weight of Love” that this album represents the largest leap in the evolution of The Black Keys’ sound since guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney began making music together thirteen years and eight full-length albums ago.

After a two-minute intro reminiscent of The Dark Side of the Moon‘s “Breathe (In The Air),” complete with an extended guitar solo and intricate drum fills, Auerbach’s voice, taking on a particularly delicate tone, finally chimes in with lyrics about heartbreak and loneliness that set the tone for an album that is consistently moody and somber by The Black Keys’ standards.

“Weight of Love” reminds me of the rock and roll of another era, when it wasn’t confined to the restrictions of traditional song structure or radio-friendly time limits. If “Little Black Submarines,” one of El Camino‘s breakout hits, was the Keys’ homage to “Stairway to Heaven,” then the second half of “Weight of Love” sees Auerbach break into full-on Page worship. The next few tracks bring more of the same, as the primary focus is placed on densely textured atmospheres rather than stomping blues-rock riffs.

I must admit that I was wrong about Turn Blue‘s lead single “Fever.” I initially dismissed it as the latest in a long line of the group’s entry level indie-pop jams, tailor made for the airwaves and movie trailer background music. All of those things still hold true, but the song is somehow refreshing within the context of the album.

When you first hear “Fever,” you expect the album to feature at least a half dozen other radio-ready festival anthems just like it, especially since that’s exactly what you got on their last album. The band had a formula. And it worked damn well, moving more than a million copies of El Camino and pushing the band into the increasingly select group of the certified arena rock headliners. But “Fever” is Turn Blue‘s lone uptempo tune (if we rightfully ignore the aforementioned “Gotta Get Away”), appearing at the midpoint of the album at a time when you’re desperate for a more upbeat dance number. “Year in Review,” due in large part to a catchy vocal hook, is the only other track on the album that stands out as a potential single.

Producer Danger Mouse, who has been working with the band since 2008’s Attack & Release, has more or less become their unofficial third member. And for better or worse, his influence continues to show. For the first time since more heavily deploying the use of bass and keyboards a few albums ago, they actually sound like a fully developed four(or more)-piece band.

Not only is the bass featured more prominently than it was on El Camino and Brothers, the bass lines on tracks like “Bullet in the Brain” and “It’s Up To You Now” are more infectious than any of Auerbach’s guitar licks, while the latter features Carney enjoying a massive drum sound on an intro lifted from “Mr. Brownstone.”

I’m not entirely sure if Black Keys fans are going to take to the album since, well, it doesn’t really sound like a Black Keys album. But that actually makes it the most interesting Black Keys record to come out in quite some time as the majority of the songs veer closer to the free-wheeling psych rock stylings of Tame Impala or even Kurt Vile than the raucous fest-ready shit-kickers we’ve grown accustomed to.

Led Zeppelin was able to get radio play out of songs that defied any and all conventions of radio rock. I don’t know if it’s possible to achieve that in 2014, but if any band was able to, wouldn’t it be The Black Keys? And wouldn’t it be something if they were able to, and never had to write a pandering single like “Gotta Get Away” ever again?

Time will tell if Turn Blue‘s more adventurous sound will force The Black Keys to surrender a portion of their popularity, but I will tell you one thing: Turn Blue is coming out at the right time because it’s going to make one hell of a summer driving record. You know, once I excise “Gotta Get Away” from the playlist and burn a copy for my car.

SCORE: 8/10
Review written by: Kevin Blumeyer

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