The Black Keys are long past the time when they are going to catch anyone by surprise. Turn Blue marks the band’s eighth studio album and the first since 2011’s El Camino, an album full of more radio ready rock hits than nearly any in recent memory. This time around though, the duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney seem content to let their record unfold more gradually.
This is evident from the opening moments of the record. Just as “Lonely Boy” established the urgent attitude of El Camino, Turn Blue’s “Weight of Love” similarly sets up the tone for the remainder of the album. The six-minute-plus track builds as slowly as any Black Keys track in memory. In fact, it isn’t until over two minutes in that we first year Auerbach’s built-for-rock vocals.
“Bullet in the Brain” has an equally impressive build up, beginning with acoustic strumming followed by vocals, Carney’s immediately recognizable pounding drums, and finally the driving electric riffs the band is known for. The stark difference between the opening moments of the track and the final half brings to memory a song like “Little Black Submarines”, but instead of the immediate change the band takes a more layered, slowly growing approach.
One thing that is more evident than on any other Black Keys album is the growing influence of what has nearly become a third member of the band, producer and keyboardist Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton. Though this is the third album in which Burton has had a large role in the production, Turn Blue is no doubt the record where we see his auteur touch most prominently.
Turn Blue may also be the band’s most piano-heavy output to date, an instrumentation that was most likely pushed by Burton. Both “In Time” and “In Our Prime” contain piano heavy introductions before the familiar drum, guitar duo takes back control. The funky bass line that hovers beneath the surface, along with the constant back and forth of Auerbach’s voice from his usual gravely vocals to a more falsetto whisper, makes the song feel like a cover of a tune from Burton’s most recent project outside of the Black Keys, Broken Bells’ After the Disco.
All this talk of changes isn’t to say that the die-hard fans will be disappointed. For all their new found sound, the group never loses sight of what has made them one of the most successful rock bands going. The first single, “Fever”, released nearly two months ago, shows off the band’s most lasting skill, creating unbelievable catchy hooks and choruses that you just can’t stop listening to. “Fever” is the kind of song that will undoubtedly be played in excess on both radio and whatever commercial or sports broadcast can get their hands on it. Yet somehow, in only Black Keys fashion, it will resist becoming annoying or played out.
“Turn Blue” is another track that seems destined to garner radio plays and possibly single status. The steady bass line along with a repeated guitar riff keeps the song driving forward and allow Auerbach’s vocals to take center stage. The infectious chorus, “I really don’t think you know / That could be hell below” repeats throughout giving the song a much more somber tone than much of the album without becoming outright depressing.
The Black Keys have reached such a pinnacle of success that each record will be picked through with a fine tooth comb. Many will look for the moment when they can declare that the group has officially “sold out” or has become so entrenched in success than they no longer try anything new. This album shows neither of these characteristic and although far from a perfect album, the Black Keys have successfully added to their already impressive catalog with another solid record.