The Black Keys’ Turn Blue: New Sounds, But It’s All The Same

The Black Keys' Turn Blue

Turn Blue is out today, May 13.

Eerie echoes, twinkly bells, and a distant guitar make a quiet rumble. Pat Carney’s steady, stomping drums make a low rumble and Dan Auerbach starts singing in an eerie falsetto tone. And then the wailing, vintage guitar solo begins. The song, “Weight of Love”, is only Turn Blue‘s first track but this scary-folky-epic opening has a clear message: The Black Keys are changing their sound…again.

Let’s backtrack. Carney and Auerbach have been crossing the lines between blues, pop, and rock for thirteen years, over seven albums, and with four labels. The journey has taken them from the howling blues-in-the-garage jams of their 2002 debut, The Big Come Up, to the spirited arena-fit pop-rock of 2011’s best-seller El CaminoDuring that time, they’ve been met with praise, controversy, seven Grammys, tweets from Justin Bieber, and endless comparisons to that other 21st Century blues-rock duo.

If you predicted the band would continue to tweak their sound on Turn Blue, you’d be right. For a blues duo that’s found success at electrifying and updating the music of the past, it’s hard to imagine what new musical tricks The Black Keys would have up their sleeves. After the aforementioned creepy folk epic “Weight of Love”, Auerbach and Carney launch into “In Time”, a reverberating piano-techno singalong that sounds as much like obscure dance-rock as it does Top 40 pop.

And then there’s the two singles. Sequentially first, but released second, “Turn Blue” is the forgettable title track, backing Auerbach’s lilting falsetto with grating synth whirrs and a poppy chorus that brings to mind Justin Timberlake. Luckily “Fever” picks up the pace. It’s pure alternative radio gold: a singalong chorus that’s actually tragic, harpsichord-meets-organ synths, jarring guitar strums, and a thumping, jangly beat.

The Black Keys perform live on their 2011 El Camino tour

It’d be nice to say that Turn Blue has more songs like “Fever”. Unfortunately, the album is more than a little all over the place. A lot of territory is covered: spacey folk ballads (“Bullet in the Brain”, the aforementioned “Weight of Love”), dance floor-ready pop (“10 Lovers”, “It’s Up To You Now”), glum love song lyrics (just about everything), and guitar solos that Eric Clapton would approve of.

Almost none of these songs are flat-out bad, yet none of them are as compelling or original as Carney and Auerbach’s 2010 magnum opus, the infectious pop-rock-soul fusion Brothers. As the duo explores poppier and weirder territory than ever before, lots of new genres are covered. Yet nothing feels actually…new.

All of the lyrics, for instance, are about failed love; i.e. nothing The Black Keys haven’t covered before. And synthesizers? Let’s just say they’re overused.

As repeat listens show, there are things to like about the album. Pat Carney’s drums may be straightforward but Dan Auerbach does some interesting things with his voice and, especially, his guitar. Notice the exuberantly sung hooks and, yes, those electrifying solos. There’s also some unique sounds, instruments, and singing (echoey vocals, sonorous synth lines, the tambourine beat on “Fever” and “Year in Review”) that reveal themselves over time.

“Gotta Get Away”, the goofy, catchy final track, pretty much sums up all of Turn Blue: sometimes compelling, a little different, nothing spectacular, toe-tapping fun. It won’t change any lives, but this is hummable alternative-rock from one of the most surprising bands in rock.

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One Comment

  • TUFFLETOOT said:
    May 14, 2014 at 1:36 am

    Although I do agree this album is a bit odd for the black keys I think it fits them.
    It is true that synthesizers can ruin a good song but it can also improve a song too.
    It just depends who’s hands it’s in.
    In my opinion It’s in good hands with the black keys.

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