Review: The Black Keys – Turn Blue

It’s a bit odd that for a band that got its start and first achieved fame as a blues band, that it wasn’t until their eighth album that anyone would call an album by The Black Keys “sad”.  Part of that is the nature of the blues: even when you’re writing about how life has done you wrong, the goal is to keep it from letting you stay down for too long.

Turn Blue isn’t a typical “sad” album however.   There is no overwhelming aura of depression or melancholy; it’s marked more by a sense of restraint and internal contemplation, especially compared to their most recent work (most notably the built-for-arena-touring El Camino and their crossover breakthrough Brothers).  Instead of outsized swagger and riffs, the album relies on intimate grooves and swirling psychedelic touches.  It’s definitely of a piece of their post-Magic Potion work (i.e., it’s not the down-and-dirty two-man grimey blues of their early work), but it’s examining a different aspect of that style.

The album kicks off with the fantastic “Weight of Love”, a slow-burner that begs for repeated listens–a desire that I’ve indulged in several times already.  A ballad that takes its time to gradually build over six minutes before carefully fading away, it serves as a great mission statement for the album.  The song signals the return to prominence of guitar to The Black Keys’ sound, with three separate, gorgeous solos from Dan Auerbach, culminating in a thrilling double-tracked ripper at the climax.  While the solos are definitely worthy of being singled out for praise, the song works so well because of the efforts of all the musicians involved.  The breakdowns to the bare grooves of the verses lead into gorgeous swells of the chorus and climax as instruments are added to the mix, and Patrick Carney’s fills in the solo mark some of his finest work to date.

[There originally was a YouTube clip of the song included in this post, but it has since been taken down.  We will attempt to post a replacement when one becomes available.]

The album maintains a mysterious, somewhat ethereal mood throughout, with 60’s/70’s soul replacing the blues and classic rock as the primary influence this time around.  It’s noticeable even on the tracks meant to get the crowd moving, like on the lead single “Fever”.  The keyboard melody is catchy, but there is a slight air of disturbed menace that gives the whole song a delirious quality, especially considering the lyrics.  Though it has escaped attention from most people, the ending should be given some special praise, as it does a great job of inverting the melody to build up the mild paranoia evoked in the song before falling apart at the end.

The blues influences haven’t completely disappeared, however.  “It’s Up To You Now” relies on a similar groove to The Stooges’ “1969” (with the addition of typical eighth-note drum hits from Carney to accent the end of each phrase), and the halftime breakdown features an especially sleazy guitar solo.  The ingratiatingly fun closer “Gotta Get Away” is the closest the band gets to big dumb classic rock, and it serves as an excellent epilogue to the seriousness preceding it.  Considering how easily it puts a smile on your face, it wouldn’t be a surprise if it ended up being a single down the line.

Danger Mouse contributes a lot of his signature touches to the album, but his production doesn’t overwhelm the group.  Some of his trademarks do show up, like the muted staccato bass, the subtle organ flourishes, and the spaghetti western-influenced strings (the last of which is most clearly heard in “Year in Review” and “10 Lovers”).  But the band has incorporated a lot of these aspects into their sound already at this point, and they never push Dan’s guitar and vocals away from the spotlight.  It’s clear that since Danger Mouse’s initial contributions to Attack & Release that the group has evolved into a different entity; at the time, it was a necessary injection of new blood, as the original formula had begun to deliver diminished returns (though I believe that Magic Potion doesn’t deserve the poor reputation that it seems to have received).  Though the sound of present-day Black Keys differs in many ways from the Rubber Factory and thickfreakness days, one can still feel the basic DNA of their sound still present in the music, that it’s simply exploring different sonic territory through their own unique lens.

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