The Black Keys have never been good at playing the part they’ve been cast in. Starting out in the clubs of Akron, Ohio, Dan Auerbach was fond of saying the bad was too bluesy for the punk crowd, too punk for the blues crowd. Now he’s the frontman for the sorta-two-piece blues-rock-soul outfit that happens to be among the biggest rock bands in the world. They’ve been characterized as rigid traditionalists and crass sellouts. A quick perusal of customer reviews will show accusations from long-time fans and blues purists deriding the synthesizers, disco-heavy beats, and Danger Mouse’s atmospheric fluff. At every turn the band has managed to find a new set of complaints to be levied against them. And with Turn Blue, the group’s 8th album, they manage to plant themselves in every detractors cross-hairs, coming away gloriously with one of their strongest records to date, one that solidifies every strength they’ve been honing for years since turning away from their early two-man riff rock.
This wonderful mess of contradictions is made apparent from the get go as Weight Of Love starts with a country-blues-esque acoustic guitar before being joined by piano melodies and crashing drum fills. And then, an honest-to-god, skyward-reaching, guitar solo comes in. Fuzz drenched and emerging from a low rumble, more David Gilmour than Junior Kimbrough. They’ve never sounded so much like a classic rock band, yet they sound as vital as ever. The song ends in twin guitar carnage, left and right matching each other note for note, building to a thrilling climax.
And from there they proceed to roll through every trick in their ever-growing arsenal. In Time starts with a crooked railroad spike beat before turning into a horn fueled New Orleans-ian stomp. Fever takes the currently omnipresent disco back beat and turns it into the sort of arena rock stomp the Black Keys have perfected of late (albeit with a synthesizer lead where distorted guitars once reigned for them). Meanwhile the title-track disassembles the four-on-the-floor approach into a pulsing bass line and crashing symbols, turning down the bravado and upping the sultry quotient by several times. It’s the sound of falling into quicksand, being pulled under, and falling out the bottom into a pit of recently fluffed pillows waiting below. It’s an intriguing track, and a testament to how far the group has come in their songwriting, being able to apply their tried-and-true approaches to new sounds.
And the new sounds are brought in by the bus load compliments of producer Danger Mouse. From the horn fueled fanfare that spell the verses on In Time to the crystalline harmonies that overtake and power Year in Review or the encroaching wall of fuzz in 10 Lovers, the details are exquisitely rendered, and I’ll admit to getting a bit giddy at some of the hidden gems tucked behind Auerbach’s full voice.
A voice which is also the star of the show here. From the beginning of their career, he’s sounded most at home with a ragged bellowing over top Patrick Carney’s oversize beats. The biggest treat here though is the falsetto that came as such a shock on Brothers’ opener, Everlasting Love. What once was a new trick is now a favorite weapon, deployed strategically throughout the album as either a buoyant ray of light on the bass heavy beats or for a disarming turn of phrase.
What’s most impressive, though, is that his growth as a singer is matched by his growth as a songwriter. I’ve never so thoroughly enjoyed watching a band delve into the mainstream consciousness as I have the Black Keys, and a large part of that is due to the growth in Dan Auerbach’s songwriting. Where he once relied on matching tried-and-true blues boilerplates with big riffs, his obsession with soul and R&B paired with a knack for surprisingly catchy melodies allow a wider variety. Of the many bands mining classic soul and blues, few make it theirs like the Black Keys do. And even fewer, it should be said, have the likes of Danger Mouse to give their songs a psychedelic depth and Carney’s facility at turning a slow burner into a low-end heavy, radio-friendly blaze. Almost-closer In Our Prime is a perfect example of that growth, the emotional climax of the record that starts as a standard R&B ballad until the first verse ends and you’re thrown into a see-sawing trapdoor; deceptively upbeat and subtly disconcerting. The chorus offers the emotional payoff the beginning promised while never really offering the catharsis you’d expect, “we made our mark when we were in our prime”.
It’s a relatable lament, but one that doesn’t quite ring true for the Black Keys. Whether they’re in their prime or not is debatable, but regardless, Turn Blue is among the strongest offerings yet from a band that is slowly but surely solidifying themselves among the greats.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.