Akron Ohio blues duo the Black Keys have become one of the biggest rock bands in the world, and really one of the only big rock bands in the world. In a world dominated by hip hop and EDM culture, the Black Keys have managed to make a name for themselves on old-school macho blues rock, something that just doesn’t happen anymore. While some would cry sellout on the Black Keys since their 2010 megabreakout Brothers, I would actually say they have made some much needed changes to their sound and Brothers and the wonderfully greasy El Camino actually land as two of their three best albums in my mind (with their debut The Big Come Up being my other big favorite). On their latest Turn Blue, they quite literally turn blue and mellow out, creating a more somber and occasionally bombastic sound for the band.
Producer and frequent Keys collaborator Danger Mouse (of Gnarls Barkley, Broken Bells, Danger Doom, and countless other projects fame) is featured more prominently than ever on Turn Blue (the most since 2008’s Attack and Release) and I think while he gets some more intriguing sounds out of the band, Turn Blue sounds as much like a Danger Mouse record as it does a Black Keys record. The take-off point for this record in my mind was El Camino’s “Little Black Submarines”, the clear outlier on that album as it was a slow, growing guitar epic. Here, Dan Auerbach is playing these slow guitar epics like “Weight of Love” (which sounds eerily like Neil Young’s “Down by the River”), “In Our Prime”, and “It’s Up To You Now” and topping them off with these big showy guitar solos, something Auerbach has never really done on record.
Much of Turn Blue hits me a little more flat and generic than the last two Keys records. Also, the more rollicking songs in the style of El Camino like “Gotta Get Away” and “Fever” which are focused on the central melody and then filled in with playful and somewhat nonsensical lyrics don’t work nearly as well here and lack the same funky edge. However, Auerbach channeling his falsetto and tender heart on songs like “Waiting On Words”, “Turn Blue”, and “10 Lovers” is as good the album gets in my mind. While I don’t love all of Turn Blue, I do like that they are still exploring and trying new things, even if that means relying a bit too much on Danger Mouse.
The thing that I always loved about the Black Keys’ early work was the raw, gritty style of all the bits that made up the duo’s sound. The guitar, the vocals, the drums, the lyrics, the lo-fi recording; everything was just thrown together like a pile of dirty rags in a garage. It didn’t even matter if it was their own music or not. Most of their stuff was ripped from an old blues tune or influenced by some other rock group. In a sense, this is what I still love about them. They still carry their influences on their sleeve. Another thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that they still seem to just spitball off of each other musically, just playing the first thing that comes to mind and throwing it together. Which can also double for Dan’s lyrics as well. I think he just sings the first thing that pops into his brain while he is playing. The sad part is, that this strengths are now what is slowly becoming their vice.
It has been a few albums now that the Keys have been adding more instruments and even more production to their work. With every album they become a bit more “finely tuned”. The problem here is that the more “finely tuned” these guys sound, the more I tend to hear how sloppy they actually are. Or at least bland anyways. For my interest, the more straight forward your riffs, drums, and vocals are, the more fuzz it should be drowning in. That seemed to be the Black Keys mantra a few years ago. All these new instruments they are adding and clean production does’t make the music more complicated (something Arcade Fire fans believe to be true). Instead it thins it out and actually makes it more dull.
Take the last track on the album that Wes mentioned earlier, “Gotta Get Away”. This song has a very straightforward, classic rock vibe to it. Throw this in on an album like The Big Come Up, in all it’s bare-knuclked gritty glory, and it could have ended up as quite a tune. Instead, it feels as edgy as a ball of yarn (to play off of Wes’ “funky edge” comment). Rather the songs on the album work much better with this new format when they go in the opposite direction. Songs like “Turn Blue” and “In Time” have a slower groove to them, which ended up being the stand out tracks to me.
All that to say, the album shouldn’t be completely discredited. For what the Keys have become and the type of audience they are playing for at this point, it still is better than most things out there. I just personally found their music to have much more character, charisma, and appeal to it when it had much less clutter and “tightening up” to it.
I can’t believe Todd or Wes didn’t make reference to Danger Mouse’s collaboration with Italian composer Daniele Luppi, Rome, while discussing Turn Blue. There are a lot of similarities between the two projects. For one, both projects featured a legendary blues-influenced guitarist in Black Keys contemporary Jack White. In addition, many tracks on Turn Blue feature the spaghetti western soundtrack feel that was so prevalent on Rome.
I think where Turn Blue goes wrong is by not fully committing to this theme. I like a lot of the meandering psychedelic spaghetti western stuff that is going on here, but it is a style that is better enjoyed fully than in piecemeal form. It’s just a tough record to peg with it being all over the place. Auerbach sings and plays guitar in a much more traditional way at times, which may be the most alarming part of Turn Blue.
This record will probably end up somewhat of a novelty in The Black Keys catalog when all is said and done. Not great, but an enjoyable diversion from time to time. You just have to take it for what it is.
Can’t Miss: “Waiting On Words”, “Turn Blue”, “Bullet In The Brain”, “In Time”
Can’t Hit: “Year In Review”, “It’s Up To You Now”, “In Our Prime”