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Mattison and Sam’s Album Review: The Black Keys Turn Blue

By Mattison Johnston Turn Blue takes an interesting turn from the Black Keys’ usual work. After El Camino’s huge commercial success, no one was quite sure what to expect from this album.  El Camino was categorized by catchy melodies and the sort of upbeat yet whiny voice that has become popularized in male singers, and has been the common thread throughout all their albums. Their music has always maintained a sort of classic garage-rock authenticity that has kept the music snobs and hipsters listening despite the mainstream popularity of the Keys.What I first found interesting on the album was the opening seven-minute instrumental track, “Weight of Love”. We do hear a few lines from the lead singer, Dan Auerbach, who croons in his usual way about some love interest. The rest of the song is actually quite lovely as an instrumental. Its slow and trippy and flowy, reminiscent of the work of Tame Impala, a band that has always been a better version of the Black Keys in the way they bring the listener on a time-machine to the days of psychedelic rock. “Weight of Love” got me excited for an album that would sound exactly like the first track, but then I found myself a bit disappointed.

The next four songs all kind of sounded the same (which can be a problem when you have a singer with a unique voice and use the same instruments in every song). They weren’t instrumentals, they were pretty catchy, and had the same heavy common time drum beat. They left me to wonder if what the Keys were doing was getting old. Their first few albums really had made an impression. They were different from what other rock bands were doing: clinging to hip trends of sixties psychedelic music, bringing in a twist of modern beach rock, and still making it accessible to listeners who would rather be pumping their fists and popping mollies.

My ears perked up at “Its Up to You Now”, the seventh track on the album. It suddenly picked up and differentiated itself from the previous songs on the album. It was weird, it had interesting and groovy guitar riffs, and unexpected time-changes that gave the song movement. I wasn’t surprised to find that the song had been produced by a guest: heavyweight Danger Mouse, who is behind the musical act Gnarls Barkley and has worked with names like The Gorillaz, U2, Frank Ocean, and Beck. He has also coauthored and produced Black Keys albums in the past to such an extent that he is sometimes referred to as the “Third Black Key”. On Turn Blue, he produces two songs: this and the last song on the album, “Gotta Get Away”.

Other than these few divergent songs, the album overall speaks for the trend that most musicians seem to follow, especially rock bands, who have a harder time reinventing themselves than singular musicians. The first few albums are good, even great, because its something new and interesting. Then they run out of material. Unfortunately, the Black Keys have seemed to stumble into this rut, having produced an album that could do without most of the songs, due to their similarity to one another, and not in the cohesive and planned way that rock masters like the Beatles are so apt to do. Although we can surely expect great songs out of the Keys in the future, Turn Blue was a bit of a disappointment.

The Black Keys perform at Coachella

The Black Keys perform at Coachella

By Sam Kelly “Bullet in the brain, I prefer than to remain the same,” sings Black Keys’ frontman Dan Auerbach softly on one of Turn Blue’s feature track, “Bullet in the Brain.” This message is pretty much the theme of the entire album. If you were looking for some sort of throwback to their early albums like Thickfreakness, Magic Potion, or Attack and Release, you won’t be pleased with Turn Blue. The old focus the Keys used to put on hard, heavy guitar riffs has been replaced with an emphasis on softer melodies and synthesizers. It’s a bit disappointing to any Keys fan who’s favorite songs are songs like “I Got Mine” and “Your Touch” (many Keys fans).Not only is this album boring to listen to, but it seems like Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney were bored making it. The energy that used to make them unique is absent on this album. They’ve found fame and they’ve found success, and subsequently it seems like they didn’t feel the need to try very hard on this album. Auerbach is an outstanding guitarist, one of the best in modern rock, but you wouldn’t be able to tell listening to Turn Blue. In fact, he is outshadowed by the bass on almost every song, which wouldn’t necessarily be bad if the Black Keys weren’t composed of a drummer and a guitarist/singer.

The Black Keys seem weary on Turn Blue. Auerbach is no longer singing into the microphone with the grit only he could achieve. Instead, he’s softly whispering the lyrics. It sounds nice, but the passion is gone. This was apparent to anyone who watched the Keys’ performance on Saturday Night Live shortly before the album came out. The Keys, well-known for their enthusiastic and upbeat performances, stood onstage and churned out a boring, uninspired performance. It was as if they were warning us what the album would be like.

“Fever,” the “hit” of the album, is a basic funky rock song that seems to follow a strict formula: 4/4 time signature with a bass drum on every beat and a snare on every other beat, while a catchy bass line plays with a guitar chord on every other beat. It’s catchy, but it seems a little too easy. For any other band, it would be a fine single, but the Keys have set expectations too high to pass off mediocre music like this as a hit. Plus the synth that comes in on the chorus is just plain cheesy. Other songs on the album aren’t much better. “Year in Review” follows an almost identical formula and doesn’t pull it off much better, although I personally think the backup vocals on the song provide a nice touch.

Don’t get me wrong, evolution for a band is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s absolutely necessary to a band’s success. If they keep churning out the same old stuff over and over again, people will lose interest. It’s no tricky feat to evolve your music while still staying true to your original sound, but in the past the Black Keys have done it much better than they did this time. Take their previous album, El Camino. El Camino was a little faster paced, a little less guitar focused than their previous albums, but the Keys managed to keep a trademark sound. “Gold on the Ceiling” and “Lonely Boy” showcased Auerbach’s guitar chops the way they were meant to be showcased. It was real rock and roll. Turn Blue seems to forget the Keys’ roots as a blues-rock band. This album sees them more as just another run-of-the-mill pop-rock act, destined to die out after another album or two. I honestly really hope that doesn’t happen, because as disappointing as this album was, the Black Keys are still one of the greater talents in music today, and it would be a shame if they were to fade away. I hope their next album is a testament to their talent, but Turn Blue doesn’t fill me with too much confidence. As Auerbach sings on “In Our Prime,” “We had it all when we were in our prime.” Key word here being “were.”

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