Though the Black Keys’ previous work with Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) on two full albums, 2008’s Attack and Release and 2011’s El Camino, delved into the psychedelic and gospel tones that the producer veers toward for rock records, a predominant adherence to a gritty, galloping pace revealed Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney still tightly clutching the reins. For Turn Blue, Burton leads the charge with his jumpy bass, dreamy synths and infectiously catchy choral hooks. In this case, however, his recognizable air of grooviness feels far less at odds with the duo’s intentions.
Where 2010 breakout Brothers made use of as much tape time as possible – yielding genuinely impressive results – and 2011’s El Camino focused more on hit singles than sequence, this new record seeks to create a flowing, full-album experience. Such an aim really makes the more manufactured tracks – like the disappointingly even-keeled first single “Fever”- stick out sorely. Why lead with a song that doesn’t represent the disc’s exquisite depth?
Yet the core fans that swear by everything pre-Brothers will be the only naysayers regarding that cut’s punchy pop sound. Then again, those listeners will likewise appreciate Auerbach’s return to ripping licks – oh-so-Pink-Floydian – on 7-minute opening cut “Weight of Love” plus the rootsier, distinctly John Fogerty-inspired closer, “Gotta Get Away.”
TBK’s more recent fans (the ones who think this is their third album) will praise “Fever,” “In Time” and “Year in Review” for their simple danceability without thinking twice about how “rock ‘n’ roll” or raw/bluesy they are – just if they measure up to “Tighten Up,” “Lonely Boy” and “Gold on the Ceiling.”
They certainly do, though the female gospel backup vocals on several choruses of Turn Blue become irksome after awhile. One of the Keys’ principle strengths is Auerbach’s guttural soulfulness, that unencumbered howl – why water it down at every turn? One can’t be sure whether to blame him or Burton, but it’s a too constant obsession that needs tempering. That or else actually bringing that sound to fruition live with a touring choral line (this felt like a gaping hole on the El Camino jaunt).
That said, Turn Blue is the most masterful representation to date of the duo’s successful transformation from lost-in-the-milieu garage rockers to game-changing, widely appealing songwriters. Teens will continue to pack venues in droves to hear the album’s pop hits, old-school diehards will swoon when Auerbach lets loose for the heavy psych solo on “It’s Up to You Now” and the veteran rock crowd will appreciate retro and classic rock references like those on the title track. All signs point to this album becoming the Black Keys’ cross-generational breakthrough. As they say, one for the ages.