Coming off an undisputed mainstream crossover, 2011’s “El Camino,” The Black Keys have reached that level that every band aspires to and every fan dreads. Once a best-kept blues-rock secret, guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney are now an arena-touring sensation.
The music, fans argue, is rarely the same after crossing over. But is that a bad thing? Do we want The Black Keys to release another handful of “Rubber Factory”s and “Thickfreakness”s? Surely any fan would be curious to find out where this last three years, an unprecedented gap between releases for the band, has taken their newly tightened pop rock, especially after its absurd marketing campaign. (I can’t be the only one hoping for a Mike Tyson spoken-word cameo here.)
“Turn Blue” is hardly in the spirit of the Keys’ newfound success. It’s a long play album, cohesive in its murk with few of the classic rock sashays of last album. If the success of “El Camino” was a surprise party, “Turn Blue” is a meditative decamp somewhere closer to their point of origin, far away from the hangers-on, but without nostalgic retreading.
It’s an understandable direction. While Carney seems in good spirits, Auerbach has gone through a very messy, very public divorce over the last year. It’s made for potent song fodder: much of “Turn Blue” is spent airing his dirty laundry. “The house it burned, but nothing there was mine,” Auerbach sings on lament “In Our Prime,” a reference to when his wife reportedly set fire to their Nashville home last year. “Bullet In The Brain” is much less subtle: “Bullet in the brain / I prefer than to remain the same.” Point taken.
Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, returns to produce on the record, and his hand lends a predictable buff to the proceedings. The cheesy synth modulations and choral backing we heard so much of on the new Broken Bells record recurrs throughout, though a touch subtler here, limited to choruses and fills for the most part (“10 Lovers,” “Weight of Love”). Burton even snuck a sample on the record on “Year In Review,” a sure sign of the times in the band’s trajectory.
Produced as it is, “Turn Blue” also contains moments of unfettered blues rock that rival anything in their catalogue. Channeling Duane Allman, Auerbach’s 12-bar guitar solos breath an unpredictable wiliness into the once-closed crevices between chorus and verse. Always an accent, never a crutch, it won’t swamp the impatient ear. Instead, for songs as straightforward as “It’s Up To You Now,” it imbues wriggling energy, a viability in otherwise staid formulas.
With something old, something new and a whole lotta blue, the Black Keys’ “Turn Blue” stems from the dissolution of a wedding. But through the pain, Auerbach has crafted an unexpectedly potent requiem, and proved that through thirteen years together, he and Carney still have a spark, and can still make you smile.