Album Review: The Black Keys – Turn Blue

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One of the years most anticipated records is sexy, daring but swerves short of the bands best work.

Many would have forgiven The Black Keys for releasing another record like ‘El Camino’. A full carbon copy, even. As an album, it personifies everything that the Ohio two-piece are about, and saw hit song after hit song. It’s predecessor, ‘Brothers’, fluted an unmatched imagination and made blues music cool again. Admittedly, I expected ‘Turn Blue’ to follow suit. Instead, The Black Key’s eigth studio instalment is a punchy, textured, and unpredictable chapter in the story of one of the worlds biggest bands.

Gently, ‘Turn Blue’ opens with ‘Weight Of Love’, a stripped down cracker-jack of a song. Frontman Dan Auerbach’s dark-eyed blues riffs, licks and axe-man credentials are still present. Once again, his soulful, yet modest voice is perfectly intertwined with his guitar harmonies, and drummer Patrick Carney acts as his dynamic metronome, thumping and bumping away. The contrasting soprano and tenor vocals of Auerbach and the backing singers cross lines with what the Arctic Monkey’s achieved on last years ‘AM‘. Weight of Love’ is the longest track that the two-piece have ever pressed to record, and signals a bold, outlandish move for a band who signature short, sharp rock songs.

The highly charged, sexual collision that The Black Keys have been known for continues. ‘Turn Blues first single, ‘Fever’,  brashly builds up a sassy pulse of lust, and dynamic rhythm. You’d have to have been living on mars not to have heard this track in the last couple of weeks. As a single, it’s a clever choice. It offers something that the band have never offered before. A denser, electronically harmonised garage rock song, that underlines the road that the band have come down. The dance-heavy, energised production influences of Danger Mouse are apparent throughout the record. All the sexy growls that the bad have been recognised for, added with a pinch of synthesised melody.

The records optimum peak comes from ‘Bullet in the Brain’, the second teased track that we were gifted to on the bands session for Zane Lowe. Opening acoustically, the track then cascades into bullish brilliance. The understanding that Auerbach and Carney have with each other is truly remarkable. Every harmonic flick is met with an offbeat rhythm, every sour note it boosted by a crash symbol. Like ‘Brother’ and ‘El Camino, ‘Bullet in the Brain’ emphasises The Black Keys dimensions as both a hard-hitting garage band, as well as a softly-spoken blues act. A master-piece of a rock song, that veers wide of anything we’ve heard the band do before.

Enjoyably, the unexpectedness continues. ‘Turn Blue‘ contrasts itself in its songs; from the thick to the thin. Where songs like ‘Fever’ and ‘Bullet In The Brain’ roll off deep drumming and explosive guitars, songs like ‘In Our Prime’ and title-track ‘Turn Blue’ strip away the texture, and soften the blow. Mellowness, to this scale, has never been exercised before by the band. “In the dead of night I start to lose control”, are the words that Auerbach so soulfully sings. As the soprano chorus kicks in, and the tones are slowed down.

There’s no question that the duos song-writing is as potent and penetrating as ever. The eruptive ‘It’s Up To You Now’ clowns around with blue-rock bass fiddlings, but maintains that garage-rock feel to the band. Just like the song writing on ‘Turn Blue‘, the production is also more detailed. Moreover, Auerbach’s guitar playing has never sounded more succulent, or more fuzzy. Nor, has his lyrical attention been more sentimental. The hopelessly poppy ‘Waiting On Words’ gently digresses a tale of heavy emotion, as the acoustic guitar carries the song softly, before the drums finally make an appearance.

It’s a record full of hits; songs that you find yourself playing again and again. But ‘Turn Blue‘ provokes contradictions. The song writing is brilliant, but it captures only some of the pop-rock masterclass of ‘El Camino‘, and only some of the grizzly menace from ‘Brothers‘. Although the song-writing stands as brilliantly unique from their two previous commercial successes (let’s not forget their other wonderful albums, such as ‘The Big Come Up‘ and ‘Attack & Release, etc), the tracks on ‘Turn Blue are not as hugely memorable. You wouldn’t go to a Black Keys hopping to hear ‘Year In Review’ or ‘In Time’. You’d have them play ‘Weight Of Love’, ‘Fever’ and ‘Bullet In A Brain’ thrown into a set list that included their biggest hits. Namely, ‘Lonely Boy’ and ‘Next Girl’.

Had it not been for the bizarrely Kid Rock-like closing track ‘Gotta Get Away’, perhaps my praise on ‘Turn Blue’ would have processed out at 100%, rather than an agonising 90%.

In the end, ‘Turn Blue‘ is a hugely enjoyable, dynamic and accomplished record. It twists in a design of hard-hitting, old-school garage and blues with the softer dialogue of folk-rock and pop. But it lacks the gravity that we guzzled up on previous albums

It’s likeable. It really is. But is it loveable?

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