May 13, 2014
From the get go, you could tell that Turn Blue was going to be a different album than anything done before by the Akron, Ohio duo.
Whether that get-go was from their first single, the synth-induced and infectious Fever, or whether it was album opener Weight of Love, it was very unlike anything the Black Keys have done before.
With their last album El Camino, a garage rockabilly foot stomper from start to finish, the Black Keys rose to become one of the biggest mainstream rock bands in the world. Mainstream is a funny word considering not only their roots, but also their classic rock approach which has become a dying breed on new rock radio.
El Camino was a pretty big departure from their mainstream breakthrough, Brothers. The songs were catchier, more fast paced, and sold more cars too, probably. The feel was more rock, less blues as the goal was to become arena rock superstars and festival headliners.
With Turn Blue, The Black Keys took the two albums along with some new sounds to create something much more different. Where El Camino was more an album for live shows and crowds, Turn Blue feels much more personal and subdued, like driving down an empty road at night (listen to this album doing just that, it’s perfect). Subtle instead of in your face.
What The Black Keys aimed to do with Turn Blue was to create a “headphones album.” They created just that.
With the help of longtime producer and pretty much third member Danger Mouse, Turn Blue is heavy on atmospheric sounds and synth leads in the background. There’s also more bass in this album alone than in the other seven albums combined. It’s a new direction, but it creates a much fuller sound where instruments blend together perfectly and cohesively.
Some will probably disagree with that sentiment saying that the band was always “just two guys, Dan on guitar, Patrick on drums” and the new sound mashes it up making a mess. And while that produced great music with their past formula, this new sound was a necessary step in the right direction. A gripe with the Black Keys has always been their lack of creativity and originality, but with this album they’re going in bold new directions without alienating their formula completely.
Those atmospheric sounds come in right at the start with the album opener and highlight, Weight of Love. The acoustic guitar along with those eerie and airy sounds create a feeling of loneliness with a Wild West vibe to it. The song is the longest song they’ve ever recorded, but it could be one of their best. Dan Auerbach doesn’t usually do long guitar solos, but he nails a two minute Clapton-esque solo to close out the song that makes you wonder why this isn’t something he does more often.
The song also sets the tone for the album lyrically and thematically of lost love after Auerbach’s divorce. This is where the album really shines.
On other albums, the Black Keys tend to prioritize vocal melody over lyrical depth (has anyone figured out what 50 per cent of the songs on El Camino were about yet?) and while it was catchy, there’s no substance. It’s what I like to call placeholder lyrics or the Kings Of Leon effect.
On Turn Blue, every song has weight and feeling to it that seems sincere. That’s not to say that the lyrics are amazing, but it’s a step up from their last album. Songs like Turn Blue, Year In Review, and In Our Prime all paint vivid pictures of the despair and turmoil suffered in a divorce.
With that being said, on first listen the album doesn’t have many standout tracks like El Camino did. There’s the aforementioned Weight of Love. Then there’s the polarizing, yet catchy lead-single Fever, and a song similarly built in Bullet in the Brain, a quiet-loud song with a hazy guitar synth mix that’s executed perfectly. The last song comes a bit from left field. Gotta Get Away is an El Camino castoff with a country tinge that immediately gets your foot stomping. The rest sort of blend together at first.
The difference was that El Camino had as much subtlety as a punch in the face. That’s not bad, but the two albums are very different from each other. Turn Blue instead needs each song to grow. The catchy melodies are still there, but with a slower pace and fuller sound, it takes a little while to hear that.
Perhaps one of the best songs on the album, Waiting On Words, is a perfect embodiment of that. The track slowly builds and builds, adding different sounds and instruments to the mix and eventually culminates with a fantastic instrument breakdown over Auerbach’s falsetto oohs and aahs. It’s one of the highlights of the album on a song that didn’t really stick out the first time through.
Just before Waiting On Words is the album lowlight though, It’s Up To You Now. It just doesn’t fit with the rest of the album. The song sounds like what I would expect to hear in the next movie about Vietnam.
And that seems to be the main problem with The Black Keys for most people. That their songs aren’t real, they’re just for commercial use only. And while it’s true that The Black Keys probably haven’t seen a commercial they wouldn’t sell a song to, I really don’t see why I should give a shit if they do.
They paid their dues toiling away in relative anonymity for years before their big break. And after that big break, the elitist of all music snobs started crying “sell outs” because their precious band wasn’t theirs anymore.
Maybe it’s the idea that the band treats their music as a job now as opposed to an art form. But with the way their music has evolved since Attack and Release I don’t buy it.
Sometimes selling out means giving up. Other times selling out means growing up.
The cries of sell outs came again with Turn Blue as The Black Keys went in a different direction with their musical style. The problem is these people who complain that they changed, would also complain if they didn’t. You can’t win.
For any band together for this long, change is a necessary thing. Turn Blue is just another step towards that, and with it the Black Keys have delivered a subtly brilliant and honest album with a much fuller sound than before. Turn Blue could be their best album yet, and one of the best rock albums I’ve heard in years.
Key Tracks: Weight Of Love, Fever, Bullet In The Brain, Waiting On Words, In Our Prime