With Turn Blue, The Black Keys’ highly-anticipated eighth album, it’s tempting to zoom in on a single turning point in the Akron duo’s timeline to figure out how they made it here. The obvious choice is 2010’s dusky Brothers, vocalist/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney’s actual big come-up, eight years after debuting with The Big Come Up in 2002. The thing about the Keys, though, is that they still sounded like themselves even when their choruses became exponentially more robust. Auerbach and Carney simply became so good at what they do that they were no longer anyone’s secret.
Over the past decade and change, the Keys have morphed into a shinier and, frankly, sexier version of their rawer original incarnation. Only now, though, are they stretching out their legs and exploiting their resources to full effect. Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, who co-produced Brothers and 2011’s El Camino, joins the Keys again here, and the album wouldn’t sound as gorgeous without him. Then again, both Auerbach (Lana Del Rey, Dr. John) and Carney (Tennis, The Sheepdogs) are also trusted producers now, and together the three of them weave the Keys’ ass-stomping blues rock template with the ROYGBIV slickness heard on Broken Bells’ After the Disco, Burton’s latest album with The Shins’ James Mercer.
After Auerbach and Carney first decamped to Michigan, Turn Blue was primarily assembled in Hollywood and at Auerbach’s Nashville studio, its sessions more spread out than those of earlier Black Keys albums. Accordingly, Turn Blue does a bunch of moving around itself, reveling in styles from soft psych and broiling hard rock while expanding to greater heights through multi-tracking and ghostly ooh-ooh vocals. There are times when you hear a buzzing layer that doesn’t seem to come from an amp or anything; it’s just there to add a little more dimension. Thankfully, though, it’s never too much noise.
The studio trickery is helpful in both widening the album’s general scope and highlighting textures one at a time, be it a gossamer Auerbach falsetto (never before has his voice been so high-pitched so often) or a cheeseball keyboard figure. The seven-minute opener, “Weight of Love”, is so total in its mystifying Led Zep sweep that you almost miss the song’s personal implications (Auerbach and Stephanie Gonis divorced last year). “Bullet in the Brain” starts acoustic and grows until it’s like the Keys are trying to one up Tame Impala in today’s field of gusting psych rock. On the fluid strummer “Waiting on Words”, Auerbach adopts what is practically a Bee Gees vocal affectation, and the song becomes a psychedelic custard.
Although Auerbach and Carney, both 34, sometimes refer to Burton as their third member, this is still a two-man operation, in essence. Black Keys riffs and solos have traces of Jimi Hendrix’s grace and Jimmy Page’s speed, but it’s come to the point where you can ID them as Auerbach’s even though he doesn’t have a “Seven Nation Army” under his belt. Meanwhile, Carney’s emphatic drumming slaps and erupts, creating beats that could easily be rapped over during certain intros and outros. These two entities — guitar and drums — still coexist beautifully in this band, and some of these songs don’t require much else, even as additional elements do pop up. “Fever”, which curls with a robotic, beeping organ riff, is splashed with sweat, toting a well-defined bridge and ascending with a high-stepping swatch of strings. The crouching “It’s Up to You Now” is at first driven by Carney’s rumbling, then carved by Auerbach’s spidery riffs. “Gotta Get Away”, the oddball closer, is both goofy and irresistible, opening with a Tom Petty road-rock riff and continuing with lyrics that couldn’t be more joyously straightforward: “I went from San Berdoo to Kalamazoo/ Just to get away from you.”
Because it’s so nonchalant, “Gotta Get Away” also distills Auerbach and Carney’s status as a band somehow immune to “selling out.” The catchier their songs are, the more fun it sounds like they’re having, and who can argue with that? These guys built their following so steadily you’d think they made their name handing out flyers. Turn Blue, though, is the sound of Auerbach and Carney eagerly and grandiosely taking things into their own (and, if you want, Burton’s) hands. On SNL over the weekend, as fellow Akron native LeBron James and the Miami Heat dropped a game to the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Keys had an underwhelming performance of their own, with Auerbach strumming lethargically as though distracted during both “Fever” and “Bullet in the Brain”. Well, that type of thing happens; surely we can expect better from their European festival slots and NBA arena gigs over the summer. If Turn Blue finds as much commercial success as Brothers or El Camino — and it might, even though it doesn’t have a “Howlin’ for You” or a “Gold on the Ceiling” — the airwaves are about to get more adventurous thanks to a band that finally decided to go big.
Essential Tracks: “Weight of Love”, “Bullet in the Brain”, and “Fever”