Album Reviews

In and Out of Blue: The Black Keys – Turn Blue

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By Ali Green

The Black Keys - Turn Blue
The Black Keys – Turn Blue

The Black Keys
Turn Blue
(Nonesuch)

It’s been over a decade since the Black Keys stole my heart. Their rise to Madison Square Garden-level stardom was hard-fought, with years spent as road warriors, winning us over one-by-one in small, smoked-filled venues (though “bars” would be a more appropriate term). I saw them first with plenty of standing room, then squished against the stage close enough to catch a falling cymbal, then waiting on lines outside for a good spot in a stone’s throw, then from my seats at the Garden, very last row to left of the stage. It felt miles away, and yet songs like “Thickfreakness” and “The Breaks” tore the monstrous stadium down.

The Black Keys don’t rock out that hard on Turn Blue, their eighth original LP, and they may never again. The rough-edged yell and bang of Dan Auerbach’s vocals and Patrick Carney’s drums have evolved into the subdued and spooky sounds of Turn Blue whose somber undercurrent draws the duo, oddly enough, further away from their Delta blues beginnings. No one would listen to Turn Blue and think “Son House.”

The Black Keys. Photo by Danny Clinch
The Black Keys. Photo by Danny Clinch

Album opener “Weight of Love” is a journey of a song, with Auerbach’s guitar taking on the weight of the world, wandering into psychedelic rock realms, further away from his blues-drenched roots. “Fever” seems to have an orchestra of sound building to a crescendo. Some may call added instruments and unfamiliar noises “polish” but, production value aside, this is a band that is growing and we must grow with them.

The duo drives in this direction under the influence of the massive musical mind of producer Danger Mouse. The trio has now completed four albums together. Fans of their stripped-down, raw blues-style who tried to resist Danger Mouse’s touch at first have most likely grown to love the Black Keys as they are today: different musicians then they were then but sublimely talented nonetheless.

The album as a whole tells a story (as all great LPs should) pulling us through the aftermath of an epic love story—and with any great rise, greater is the fall.When asked about the album’s title, the band deflects with a multiple choice:“A. suffocation; B. sadness; C. numbness from extreme cold; D. a Cleveland late night TV host from the 1960s named Ghoulardi; E. all of the above.”

Somber, echoing and lilting sound effects abound. “Year in Review” is blues, technologically enhanced. “Bullet in The Brain” conjures soft, dark, brooding terrains, recalling the ethereal atmosphere of their 2010’s Brothers. “It’s Up To You Now” begins with Carney’s unmistakable pounding drums and moves toward rocking out but with the subdued maturity of the Keys 2014, dripping with slow-built swagger and hard-won, relentless beats. “In Our Prime” calls upon Cream-era pop in a wistful, sad kind of way. The album’s psych-rock melancholia channels the Velvet Underground put through a washing machine called Danger Mouse. The closer, “Gotta Get Away” lends the album’s great recovery story a happy ending. The Keys turn blue in order to transcend it and the result feels therapeutic, like any healthy emotional cycle. Twelve years ago they stole my heart and they’ve kept it ever since.

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6 Responses

  1. Great piece, Ali. I agree that Turn Blue doesn’t quite rock as hard. For rocking, I’ll take Thickfreakness, their best overall.

  2. Definitely mellowed out stuff and a sizable deviation from the style that we’re accustomed to hearing from them. “Fever” is probably the best song on there… Catchiest one, for sure. I just hope we don’t have to wait another 3 years before the next one comes out!