The Black Keys were never here to make friends.
It’s kind of a no-brainer, with the band releasing more barbs at other artists than singles for Turn Blue, but on a closer look, isolationism and defensiveness have part of this group’s history from the start. Their first few albums were self-recorded not because no one would sign the band, but because guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney treated regional indie labels with suspicion. DIY was the mantra, and “commercial” was a dirty word. Success wasn’t a guiding principle; survival was.
And, while the Keys moved upward with each release, they always kept that underdog status: their sales and critical reception were okay, but up until Brothers, they were frustratingly aware of their lack of cultural currency. Here they were, five or six albums deep into their career, and still vying with fresh-faced art school Brooklynites for coverage in some parts of the country, and more commercially successful long-runners in others. The Keys essentially weaponized these hang-ups with El Camino, nailing the sweet spot between critical taste and pop rock thrills, and it won them the world. But, it didn’t feel like enough; the band’s underdog mentality teetered on the edge of full-blown inferiority complex (it becomes apparent seeing comments stacked back to back, like footnotes 9-13 here). After over a decade of fighting, where do you go after you hit the top?
I know that’s a lot of intro, but understanding where The Black Keys are coming from makes Turn Blue, if not a better record, at least more understandable. The album gets plenty of oomph from being written during Auerbach’s divorce, but even without that affecting the songwriting, Turn Blue is a consciously single-less “headphone album” that lets its songs play out instead of aiming for the gut. El Camino, it ain’t.
Superficially, Turn Blue isn’t going to shock anyone who listened to The Keys last few albums. It’s still polished, Danger Mouse is still co-writing and producing, and it’s still ostensibly pop rock. Where it loses traction is that it grabs the least appealing aspects of each of those records: Attack & Release‘s grafted-on muck, the psychedelic bloat from Brothers, and an expansion on El Camino‘s distrusting misogyny make Turn Blue a nearly joyless listen.
But, let’s look at the few bright spots. Much talked about opener “Weight of Love”, a sprawling, six minute, prog rock-esque jam with rises, falls, and honest to God guitar solos, kicks the album off on a high that it never quite reaches again. “Weight of Love” works because it’s focused, from the swirling intro to the huge chorus and over the top soloing. “Bullet in the Brain” briefly revisits “Weight of Love” for its intro before erupting into a catchy synth hook and a propulsive track that serves as a midalbum highlight. Single “Turn Blue” works as a slowburning blues number with Danger Mouse’s textured keyboards and strings hitting all the subtle spots in the background, and the killer bassline doesn’t hurt, either.
Elsewhere, Turn Blue is a confusing album that’s bound to shake fans that came in from Brothers onward. It suffers from pacing issues, especially in the record’s uneven first half, where “Weight of Love” gets followed up by a dud like “In Time”, and “Year in Review” is a forgettable segue between kinda-okay single “Fever” and “Bullet in the Brain”. Even if the songs aren’t always explicitly better, the backhalf feels a little more cohesive as a psychedelic classic rock send up. The guitars come to the front for “It’s Up to You Now”, the gloriously sleazy solo at the end of “In Our Prime”, and “Gotta Get Away”, while “Waiting on Words” and especially “10 Lovers” feature some of Danger Mouse’s best work here.
As I mentioned earlier, the album was written in the wake of Auerbach’s divorce. It’s a subject that’s made for a number of classic albums, and even The Black Keys’ best song is about heartbreak, but Turn Blue is painfully one-note. There are plenty of allusions to the weight, to breaking, to the cold, and sadness/distrust of lovers, but none of them really stick beyond the blues trope of “women are trouble”. This is an album that actually fucking says “All the good women are gone”. That trope appears up and down The Keys’ back catalog, but it feels flat here, knowing that there’s a name and face behind the lyrics.
In keeping with Turn Blue‘s wtf-ness, it ends on an unabashedly happy note with the doofy Rolling Stones sendup “Gotta Get Away”. It’s The Keys back to their strengths: lots of rock, a little boneheaded, but you can’t keep still while listening to it. Maybe “Gotta Get Away”‘s placement at the end of Turn Blue signifies happier times for Auerbach and the band in the future, but for now, we can only wonder. Turn Blue is well made from a technical standpoint, but suffers from aimless and uninspired songwriting with a lack of hook and depth. Put simply, it isn’t what I’ll reach for when I want bummed out music, nor is it what I’ll want if I want The Black Keys. But that might have been the idea all along. Two and a half stars out of five.
tl;dr: The Black Keys wanted a smaller audience, and Turn Blue will more than help. 2.5/5.