THE BLACK KEYS: TURN BLUE (2014)
1) Weight Of Love; 2) In Time; 3) Turn Blue; 4) Fever; 5) Year In Review; 6) Bullet In The Brain; 7) It's Up To You Now; 8) Waiting On Words; 9) 10 Lovers; 10) In Our Prime; 11) Gotta Get Away.
If, for some reason, you happened to miss out on Brothers and El Camino and have stumbled upon this record right after Rubber Factory, prepare yourself for a shock comparable with arriving at... well, let's say Genesis' We Can't Dance right after Foxtrot. Or try to imagine AC/DC doing a disco album. Not altogether impossible — with a little overworking of the fantasy machine, you could see Angus Young adapting his guitar style to the good old four-on-the-floor. (In fact, they almost came close to it on a couple songs off Highway To Hell).
Although it's not as if there were no going back altogether, Turn Blue sees the finalization of the transformation of the original Black Keys into something completely different. Many critics and fans alike have blamed this on the ever increasing influence of Danger Mouse, who they accuse of practically running this band now and adapting them to his own musical taste and vision. I have a hard time accepting that — unless he keeps Dan and Patrick on drugs or something, these guys don't really look like they could be so easily manipulated into sacrificing their identity and becoming the willing slaves of their producer. More grounded would be an accusation of «selling out»: the success of El Camino has brought The Black Keys to the attention of a much larger fanbase than the old blues-rock revival crowds, and so it could be expected that they might want to go on moving in that same «commercial» direction — and simply retain Danger Mouse as their good luck charm. «If he can get us to No. 2, surely he can get us to No. 1». And that he did.
But even so, «commercial» is such a vague term these days that there is little sense in trying to use it as an expletive. In the 1980s, for instance, if you went «commercial», this meant a very well defined style of production and musical values. In 2014, there is a range of «commercial» artists that covers all the vast space between Katy Perry and Lana del Rey, so what exactly would count as a «sellout»? And although Turn Blue does sound «modern» in its choice of production techniques, glossiness of sound, and electronic seasoning, its melodic backbone (like most of the melodic backbones of 2014, for that matter), hails from quite a chronologically different era.
In its relatively diverse array of styles, Turn Blue sounds like the band's declaration of love for the Seventies, a decade in which neither of the two band members spent any reasonable amount of time (Dan was born in 1979, and Patrick one year later), but which seems to have shaped most of their musical preferences anyway. Except where, earlier, they would be inspired primarily by the heavy blues-rock acts, now they pay their dues to the R&B, funk, art-pop, and even progressive rock corners of the scene. They do adapt all that baggage to the pulls and yearnings of their own soul, it's true — that unexplainable «blues feeling», the one which is so hard to fake when you get to know it, is all over this record. But then it was all over the records by their predecessors just as well. So it does become a tad difficult to understand where the imitation ends and the real Danny Auerbach begins. It's even possible that he doesn't really begin at all.
As the album starts, with the multi-part epic ʽWeight Of Loveʼ, you might ask yourself the question: «Is this really The Black Keys, or is this a Pink Floyd outtake?» Those pensive guitar chords, those wailing keyboard effects sounding like lonely planets zooping by your window, they all seem conspiring to put you in a Dark Side Of The Moon (more exactly, ʽBreatheʼ) state of mind. Then the song changes its time signature, becomes funkier and gradually more violent, before erupting in a climactic solo — but throughout the song, it still retains some of that initial Floydishness, and that's... weird.
ʽIn Timeʼ and a couple other songs bring on memories of such recent «R&B» successes as Amy Winehouse, which were, of course, themselves revivals of something older. With a moody, catchy guitar riff but little else in the way of guitar work (most of the other non-percussive overlays are generated with Danger Mouse's array of keyboards), it is a moody «art-groove» that seems to warn us of something we are not sure of ("...you were having your fun, now you're under the gun...") in Dan's anguished falsetto (which he uses quite a bit on the album, despite the fact that they never really go into disco: ʽFeverʼ comes close, but it still sounds more like The Cars than Chic). None of it is bad, but none of it is terribly inspiring, either.
Sometimes it is downright bizarre: ʽWaiting On Wordsʼ begins in retro-romantic mode, so much so that Auerbach almost sounds like Robin Gibb: the brutal beast trying on some ruffled fabric for a change. As impeccably melodic as these songs are, they are just not too convincing. Wolves in sheep skins? Soulless experiments? Or is it just a case of hopelessly misplaced falsetto? Something like the title track, for instance — to me, despite the paranoid bass line and minor moods, it just refuses to satisfy the «desperate tension» requirement of the lyrics. As The Black Keys «turn blue», there is a nagging suspicion that by «blue» they actually mean «half-frozen to death», and little else. As hard as it is to put my finger on what exactly went wrong here.
Something did go wrong, though, if I distinctly feel a sense of relief when it comes to the last track — ʽGotta Get Awayʼ opens with some crunchy Stones-like riffage, then quickly turns into a slightly softened up pub-rocker with a pop chorus. No pretense or ambition, no quirky production tricks... no «classic Black Keys» ambience, either, but somehow the song, even despite its repetitiveness (before it is over, you will remember exactly how far Kalamazoo is from San Berdoo), feels more «real» than everything else on here.
To put it short and blunt, Turn Blue is not a bad album — but it intentionally forgets about what it was that made The Black Keys such an outstanding band; Turn Faceless would have been a more appropriate title. On the other hand, even as a faceless album, it is an interesting experiment in retro-genre-hopping, it sounds tasteful, it has some good songwriting, and in the end, after much deliberation, I still give it a thumbs up. Just do not even think of getting close to it if you come to the Black Keys section with definite expectations.