It’s been nearly three years since The Black Keys broke into the mainstream charts with their hit record, El Camino (2011). The band have been dominating the alternative rock scene since 2002, gathering a dedicated fan base, and playing sold out shows worldwide (their Madison Square Garden gig in 2011 sold out in just 15 minutes). Now with the release of Turn Blue, their eighth studio album, The Black Keys are once again pushing the boundaries of their blues/rock sound.
The band comprises of Dan Auerbach (vocals and lead guitar) and Patrick Carney (drums), who have both had very turbulent personal lives over the past couple of years. This has had a strong impact on the music (which the two speak about in this interview with The Guardian – a good read, if you’re interested). As a result, this album is a lot more downbeat and is initially less accessible. But don’t give up! After a few listens, Turn Blue reveals itself as the future classic it is.
The album opens with the near seven-minute epic, Weight Of Love. Layers of guitar and eerie synth build up to the entrance of a heavy, brooding solo guitar. The song recalls Led Zeppelin as it swells and contracts into a climactic wailing guitar solo to please the most avid of wailing-guitar-solo fans. Despite being the album’s longest track, this song does not lose the listener’s interest thanks to its fascinating dynamic.
This track also introduces the album’s theme of warning, which carries on lyrically throughout, and can be sensed in the album’s whole atmosphere. This is continued on the title track, Turn Blue. Dan’s voice taunts in layered falsetto and baritone vocals: “I really don’t think you know / There could be hell below.” Combined with whirring, mechanical synth, and dramatic, vaguely disco strings, the effect is chilling.
This is followed by the album’s first single, the subtly catchy Fever, which features an MGMT-like synth riff and several interesting rhythmic changes (characteristic of The Black Keys – see their 2010 hit, Tighten Up). Bullet In The Brain (possibly the next single?) starts acoustic and grows into a dark, synth-driven anthem with erratic cymbal crashes and a dynamic bass line.
Waiting On Words seems like the hidden gem of the album. It is slower and more acoustic than any other song thus far, making a nice change of pace. The less intricate production puts more emphasis on the melody and the sincerity of the lyrics:
I heard you were leaving
Won’t try changing your mind
Goodbye, don’t know where you’re going
The only thing I really know
My love for you is real.
The odd one out on this album of psychedelic brooding is the closing track, Gotta Get Away. The most upbeat song on the album, it has a fun 60s vibe thanks to the organ-like synth, and feels a bit like a hillbilly anthem. Although this song retains some of the sadness of the rest of the album, it’s presented with a comical twist as Dan sings, “I went from San Berdoo to Kalamazoo / Just to get away from you.”
Altogether, this is a quality album. It is unmistakably a Black Keys record and retains the tropes that fans love; Dan’s wizened, blues-y vocals, heavy bass, excellent guitar work, and a strong sense of rhythm, fueled by Patrick’s innovative drumming. On this album The Black Keys pull off their new use of strings and synth, which complements the downbeat vibe. However, this album is not as inviting or thrilling as El Camino with its up beat, hook-laden blues-rock songs. I recommend fans stick with it though, since there certainly are thrills to be uncovered after a few listens. The album shows promise of good staying power as well, since the songs are varied and interesting and because the intricacy of the production reveals new details with each listen.