The Black Keys clearly wanted to write moody, trippy, mostly hookless tracks, and as far as moody, trippy, mostly hookless tracks go, the ones on Turn Blue aren’t so bad.
By Adam Ellsworth
“Weight of Love,” the opening track to The Black Keys’ eighth album Turn Blue, begins with more than two minutes of Floydian drowse before Dan Auerbach finally begins to sing. It takes another four-plus minutes of laidback vocals, blistering guitar, and keyboard tinkering before the song draws to a close. Then the next song, “In Time,” starts, and while it’s tighter than “Weight of Love,” the overall mood is the same. Only two songs in and one can’t help but ask, “This is the Black Keys? We’re sure? Really?”
Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Akron anymore.
Turn Blue certainly does not sound like the band’s 2011 record El Camino, or any other Black Keys album for that matter, which is kind of a bummer. Not that they aren’t allowed to experiment or stretch out. Of course they are, as is any band. But is moody, grooved-out, slowed-down, falsetto vocal rock really what we want from The Black Keys? I say no.
At their best The Black Keys have always been a poor man’s White Stripes, in sound and in name. That’s obviously a putdown, but not a major one, especially considering the actual White Stripes have been broken up since 2011. Truthfully, it’s what I like most about the Keys and it’s what allowed them to write a song like “Gold on the Ceiling,” easily one of the best straight up rock songs of the decade. It’s also what helped them become a truly rare thing: a 21st century rock band that can tour arenas and sell them out. That might not do much for a group’s credibility, but it does wonders for their bank account. And besides, it could be worse. They could be Kings of Leon.
So if I’m being honest, I was really hoping that Turn Blue would be comprised of “Gold on the Ceiling Part 2,” “Still Lonely Boy,” and “Howlin’ for You Again.” It’s not, which as I’ve already said is a bummer.
I blame Danger Mouse (a.k.a. Brian Burton). The man who gave us The Grey Album, “Crazy,” and (if it’s ever actually released) the new U2 album, has been working with The Black Keys as a producer since 2008’s Attack & Release and a producer and co-writer since El Camino. In addition to his co-production and co-writing on Turn Blue, his keyboard playing is all over the album. In fact, the linear notes read “All songs performed by the Black Keys,” and then list Auerbach, drummer Patrick Carney, and Burton as the musicians. Whether this “officially” makes Danger Mouse a member of the band or not, his influence is obvious. As a result, Turn Blue at times sounds like a mash-up of the latest Broken Bells album (the band Burton is in with James Mercer of the Shins) and Rome, the 2011 album Burton made with Italian composer Daniele Luppi. That’s not automatically a bad thing, but again, is that really what we want from The Black Keys?
All this said, I have to admit that Turn Blue has its charms, even if it takes a few listens before they become apparent. The quasi-Bo Diddley beat on “It’s Up to You Now” is pretty fantastic and the title track takes the mood of the album’s first two tracks and polishes it just enough to make a solid, tight, yet still dreamy tune. The keyboard drenched “Fever,” which is no doubt playing on some radio station somewhere right now, is the most obvious single, and in fact was released as one. It can’t compare with an old, rocking, Black Keys classic like “Your Touch,” but there’s no need to switch the dial when it comes on either.
Ironically, the absolute worst thing about Turn Blue is its final track, “Gotta Get Away,” which is also the only tune that can almost pass for a “traditional” Black Keys song. It could also pass for a Kid Rock song though, hence it being the worst thing about the album. In truth, it’s the only song that I can honestly say fails. The other ten tracks, while they may not be the songs I wanted the band to write, and while I don’t think they’re the songs the band should have written, are still successful. The band (and Burton) clearly wanted to write moody, trippy, mostly hookless tracks, and as far as moody, trippy, mostly hookless tracks go, the ones on Turn Blue aren’t so bad. I guess that’s something, though it doesn’t mean I have to like it.
Adam Ellsworth is a writer, journalist, and amateur professional rock and roll historian. His writing on rock music has appeared on the websites YNE Magazine, KevChino.com, Online Music Reviews, and Metronome Review. His non-rock writing has appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, on Wakefield Patch, and elsewhere. Adam has a MS in Journalism from Boston University and a BA in Literature from American University. He grew up in Western Massachusetts, and currently lives with his wife in a suburb of Boston. You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamlz24.