#1 Review in America: The Black Keys' "Turn Blue"

#1 Review in America: The Black Keys’ “Turn Blue”

May 26, 2014 / by / 36 Comments

Each week we make Stephen listen to the #1 album in America. This week, Stephen listens to The Black Keys’ Turn Blue.

Is Turn Blue a good album? Yeah, I guess so.

If your definition of a “good” album relies on the absence of anything “bad,” then the Keys’ most recent LP (and their first to hit number one) is absolutely a good record. In fact, Turn Blue is chock full of what has made The Black Keys simultaneously one of the best and most successful rock bands since the Obama administration: Dan Auerbach’s inventive shredding and Marlboro-tinted vocal delivery, Patrick Carney’s tight-knit drumming that locks in with Auerbach with the precision and force of a Predator drone, and de facto third-mate Brian Burton’s (a.k.a. Danger Mouse) otherworldly production touch and keyboard dexterity. Not to mention that the album art is pretty cool if you scroll up and down real fast on your computer, which is a definite plus, and besides, how often these days do you get to review a release by one of your favorite current rock bands because they topped the charts? In a day and age when Imagine Dragons represents the forefront of “rock,” Turn Blue is a very good album indeed.

But very little of Turn Blue is arresting, compelling, or just feel-it-in-your-balls awesome (with the exception of album closer “Gotta Get Away,” which we’ll get to later), so for me Turn Blue is neither a great album nor an impressive entry into The Black Keys’ discography.

Sure, you can bop along to any track on the album, but there’s no way that in a couple of months from now or even next week you’ll be able to remember the melody from album opener “Weight of Love.” Rather, Turn Blue is a collection of technically proficient and experimental songs that sound like an attempt by the Keys to play around in an attempt to expand their sound beyond the pop bombast and arena rawk of Brothers and El Camino. There’s an increased focus on synths, bass, Auerbach’s falsetto, and lyrics about how terrible relationships between Auerbach or Carney and their respective paramours seem to go, but there’s a very real danger throughout Turn Blue that the songs all start to sound formulaic (Carney grooving with a plodding bass vamp, Auerbach noodling on a reverb-heavy guitar), which makes the songs on Turn Blue that are supposed to sound like a departure from The Black Keys’ past ironically all run together.

Turn Blue provides the band with a new crop of songs to play in very large arenas during their next tour, but tracks like “Fever” or “In Time” probably sound best and are best enjoyed in the hermetic comfort of a recording studio or a pair of overpriced designer headphones. On “Bullet in the Brain” or “Year in Review,” Auerbach isn’t singing generic breakup songs quite so much as angry rebukes to particular lovers. Although all the tracks demonstrate the band’s virtuosic talent and wide-ranging interests, I can’t help but feel that the piano and drum opening hook of “In Our Prime” might be a more interesting fit with Keys-collaborator RZA than the band itself.

Unlike the raw and undeniable power and sheer joy of, say, Rubber Factory‘s “10 A.M. Automatic” or El Camino’s rafter-shaker “Gold On The Ceiling,” Turn Blue‘s songs aren’t the kind that make you want to run out and get laid or knock back far too many with your crew. Instead, Turn Blue features songs like “10 Lovers,” whose bass line may have been stolen from a Queen b-side. Like a better version of Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, the album adds dance beats, electronica, and disco flair to what is at its core a rock group, even as it sounds apparent that Auerbach and Carney were never the kind of guys to tear up a dance floor growing up.

And while the result of Turn Blue‘s experimentation with new sounds is listenable enough, and even though it’s cool to hear The Black Keys striving to reinvent themselves rather than churn out another decade of marketable pop-rock à la Camino, unlike every other album the Keys have put out there’s only one track on Turn Blue that I know I’ll return to over and over again. That would be the aforementioned closer “Gotta Get Away,” a country rock/bar band sing-along burner about a man on the run from his girlfriend and wondering if maybe “all the good women are gone.” Pairing misogyny with the open road, “Gotta Get Away” is the kind of blast you wish you had throughout Turn Blue, and hopefully a portent of good things to come with the next Keys album.

The best precedent for Turn Blue within the Keys’ discography is their 2008 album Attack & Release. Like Turn BlueAttack & Release featured an experimental vibe that fused the band’s blues sensibilities with new sounds and also marked a transition period for the band. Attack & Release broke the band out of its straight-up blues and White Stripes-ishness chains that had defined The Black Keys and brought the band towards the more pop-oriented and commercial/critical/cliche breakthrough releases of Brothers and El Camino.

Now that the Keys are signaling yet another transition period with Turn Blue, it will be fascinating to hear how the band takes on its ever-expanding array of musical identities.