Release Date: May 13, 2014
With a tribute EP to Junior Kimbrough and a Damon Dash-sponsored rap-rock album in their catalog, not to mention an armful of Grammys and a Twitter beef with Justin Bieber, the Black Keys have been the real thing, the fake thing, and everything in between. What they’ve never been, over the course of eight albums, is exceptional. We now know Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney to be the biggest thing to happen in blues since Clapton’s Unplugged, but back on 2002 debut The Big Come Up they were merely a big greasy breath of fresh smoke. By 2004’s well-regarded Rubber Factory, you either asked, “Is this it?” or pledged to like every grayscale juke-punk jam they’d release. In the 2006 video for “Your Touch” they die, just like the old guys. With their famous hard-work ethic and refusal to track in a real studio, their trapping search for authenticity might’ve well ended there, if they didn’t have a bigger hard-on for longevity. Enter Danger Mouse.
But pop success or not, Black Keys songs didn’t alternate heavily in structure after that; excepting the arena-R&B breakthrough “Tighten Up,” which actually had a bridge, fan favorites like “Gold on the Ceiling” and “Howlin’ for You” now lived and died by their distinct guitar-as-buzzing-synth tones. But they still struggled to retain back-to-basics minimalism and stretch themselves out as pop stardom requires. Since Auerbach’s lyrics rarely get more quotable than pledging, “My next girl will be nothing like my ex girl,” you could read his work with partners as disparate as Dr. John, RZA, Tuareg guitar god Bombino and Lana Del Rey as attempts to get outside the ordinariness he’s worked for 12 years, to make up all the ground the ferociously more imaginative White Stripes have always had on Black Keys.
On Turn Blue, the band’s newest and most listenable album, he succeeds, somewhat. Taking its cues from Tame Impala, “Bullet in the Brain” sums up the duo’s plush, psychedelic new set, with rippling soul and whooshing sound effects that wouldn’t feel out of place on an Afghan Whigs record. The best-sounding thing on the album is the bass, which is neither Auerbach nor Carney’s role, and drives their sexiest song to date, “Turn Blue,” which makes a pass at its lust object by wondering aloud if there’s a hell below. The G-funk-inspired “10 Lovers” sounds like a lost and cleaned-up Tyler, the Creator beat. Even the sole concession to their facile chart knockouts, “Fever,” gains presence and depth from the bass’ one-note thump.
Seven-minute opener “Weight of Love” tends toward the ponderousness of latter-day Beck, but it’s also the first Black Keys song you can get lost in, and it’s followed rewardingly by the grinding plastic soul of “In Time.” By the time “Waiting on Words” cuts its soundtracky swoon with a river of Hammond B-3, it’s clear that the Keys’ attempt to make a textural record actually resulted in their most replayable. And those who’ve been waiting for this moment can enjoy the closing “Gotta Get Away,” a blissful, vibrant Stones tribute that signals a leap into many more colors than just blue. It’s not White Blood Cells or Icky Thump, but at least they no longer sound like they’re producing records in a Black Keys factory.