The Black Keys’ newest album, Turn Blue, dropped on May 12, and it’s a decidedly different turn for one of modern rock’s most popular groups. Apparently, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney were both so fried after the back-to-back releases of Brothers in 2010, and El Camino in 2011, that they spent much of the past three years relaxing and bathing in the success of their grammy-nominated output. It’s completely understandable, because they’d been working at an exhausting pace since 2001’s The Big Come Up. But it wasn’t really until the duo’s 2008 release, Attack & Release, that they started to come into their own as a headlining act at concerts, festivals, or late-night talk show appearances (including some stunning guest performances on Letterman), and with the fervor surrounding both Brothers and El Camino, both commercially and critically, it makes sense that the duo would want to lay low for a few years. But man is it refreshing that they’re back. Especially because Turn Blue is the most adventurous album they’ve put out to date.
Now, there are music critics out there that are hailing this release as the best thing the Keys have ever done, and while it is damn good, I’m not ready to say that just yet. Magic Potion might still be the best example of everything they do great as a band, but I think the collective consciousness of music critics nationwide is tapping into a basic truth about the album, and that’s that it easily outshines all of the Keys’ earlier output in terms of production value and musicianship. Dan Auerbach is entrenched in his own amalgamation of Neil Young and Hendrix, so every guitar track he lays down is either searing with ear-splitting distortion, or hanging slightly behind or ahead of the beat with nonchalance, while Carney is just as steady and thundering as he’s always been.
“Weight of Love,” the album’s opening track, is a seven-minute rock opus. Equal parts psychedelia and insanely dirty blues, it kicks off with a shimmering acoustic intro before Auerbach unleashes the first of many fiery leads on the song, and the album. Things calm down and the chorus kicks in, but after a couple of minutes, it goes right back to the screeching guitar fills. I can’t remember the last time a commercially successful rock band has started their latest album with a song as long, or as ambitious, as this one. It sets the tone for the entire album, cluing you in on the fact that Auerbach and Carney aren’t just experimenting with a slightly different sound, but committing to it wholeheartedly. It’s a risky move that pays off extremely well because of how powerful of a statement it is.
The next track, “In Time,” is a bit slower, but it also brings in a funky bassline that mixes organically with Auerbach’s own plodding guitar work. It has a soulful chorus that seems to come out of nowhere, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t fit the song. It just hits so suddenly that it changes the texture of the song completely. Next up are the two singles that the Keys put out, “Turn Blue” and “Fever.” “Turn Blue” has a seductive presence about it that oozes ’70s R&B, with Auerbach singing in a flighty falsetto that’s accentuated by keyboards. Carney lays down a slick beat that helps keep the song at an even keel the entire way through. It’s a master-class in tempo and groove, and when Auerbach starts to harmonize with himself, it becomes one of the album’s stronger tracks. “Fever” is a more metronomic piece, and it’s the one that most resembles the psychedelic rock of the early 70s that has an influence on almost every song on Turn Blue. It’s a strong track, but it falls into the rut that most psychedelic music does, which is that because the songs are so repetitive (they have to be, to establish the right mood), it just gets kind of boring.
“Year In Review” picks the pace back up commendably though. It’s a slower song, but the Keys get back to grooving off of each other, and it might be the most hypnotic track on the album. Auerbach is perfect on every note, especially when he hits that note just right at the end of every chorus. It mixes soul music and a bit of garage rock to create an appealing track that you can just let play over and over again. After that, things get slow again for the opening of “Bullet In the Brain,” with Auerbach starting off with an echoey acoustic guitar and vocal combo that’s highlighted by a striking electric guitar line carrying over the top of it. After about a minute, the chorus kicks in, and the psych-rock starts poring out of the band again, with this being one of their faster-paced songs once they get in the middle of it. Things slow down for the verses, but the choruses keep the pace frantic and trippy. This is where Danger Mouse, the band’s producer on most of their recent releases starts to come through. Like I said previously, there’s a production value on this record that hasn’t been seen on anything else the band’s put out, and that’s truly what helps to set it apart from everything they’ve ever done.
But just as they start venturing deep into new territory, “It’s Up to You Now,” the most archetypal Black Keys song on the whole album, starts off with Carney laying down a furiously primal beat. After a while though, the distortion creeps back in and Auerbach starts working his guitar like he does in every other song on the album, gritty and nasty, but with more than enough melody to keep things flowing. “Waiting On Words” is the slowest song on the album, with Auerbach singing about lost love with a hypnotically high falsetto for its entirety, and it’s slow in a way that most Black Keys songs aren’t, with even the chorus being a little reserved in terms of full-blown volume. “10 Lovers” is another soul jam, with Auerbach back in his natural voice range, relying on organs and a fog of reverb to set the tone for the song. It’s another track that’s dripping in psychedelia, but this one has a jumpy bass-line to give it a different texture, and when Auerbach turns back into Neil Young for some flurries, it actually gives the the song life, rather than burying it under a mountain of monotony.
“In Our Prime” is probably the first Black Keys track that’s ever relied on keyboards as its foundation, and it’s a great R&B send-up. The variation of sounds on this album staggers, and just so you know you’re listening to something that was produced with the pinnacle of ’70s rock in mind, the Black Keys end the album with another genre entirely, channeling power-pop in the vein of Big Star for “Gotta Get Away,” the album’s finale. Honest, fun lyrics about trying to find at least one good woman left in the world are tempered with what’s easily the most upbeat collaboration between Carney and Auerbach on this record, and it puts an exclamation point on an album that could’ve been released in 1974 instead of 2014.
It can’t be stressed how important it is for music that a band that’s as commercially and critically lauded as the Black Keys are, are putting out albums that are almost exclusively based in dirty blues or loud-ass ‘70s rock. They’re carrying a torch, whether they want to or not, and because of them, rock is still as popular as it’s always been. Okay, maybe not as popular as it was in the ‘70s, but this is a band that’s going to go on a nationwide arena tour and sell out every single show. And both members are only in their 30s. That’s a rarity in and of itself, but the fact that everything they’ve put out so far has actually been, at the very least, good, if not transcendent, is even rarer. They’re a band that’s been around for over a decade, and they’re still getting more diverse and releasing material that’s fresh and exciting. That’s something we should all appreciate, and something they should hang their hats on as they continue to toy with different sounds and influences.