A bitter divorce and some serious overproduction mar the Ohio duo's eighth album
The black keys on a piano raise and lower notes to enrich and diversify a piece of music. Or, to use a more nebulous definition, they’re the ones that direct your emotions, the ones we have the most visceral and inexplicable reactions to. The Black Keys on your radio once had a similar effect. For anyone who remembers how this band started out, their success seems a wondrous anomaly – in an age of pygmies, here’s a dues-paying, staunchly-unglamorous blues-rock duo, together for more than a decade, who haven’t had to compromise everything on the way to becoming behemoths. Yet for all drummer Pat Carney’s righteous shit-talking of ripe (if low-hanging) targets like Nickelback and Justin Bieber on Twitter, his band have of late started to sound a little homogenized themselves, their arena-blues more a product of hypothesis than hard living, underscored by a reluctance to fuck too much with the formula that put them there.
‘Fever’, the lead single from their eighth LP, does fuck with that formula a little – and only a little – but it yields mixed results. Its kitschy keyboard hook might be the closest thing ‘Turn Blue’ has to a ‘Tighten Up’ or a ‘Gold On The Ceiling’, but this is an album less concerned with immediacy than atmosphere: opening track ‘Weight Of Love’ establishes as much with a lengthy, meandering intro that recalls Neil Young’s ‘Cortez The Killer’, and there’s an inspired, willfully-indulgent moment towards the end of its seven-minute runtime where three or four different guitar solos are vying for primacy. These things are all relative, of course – the record also ends on ‘Gotta Get Away’, a song whose breezy, double-denim boogie is every bit as Eagles-indebted as its title suggests – but generally speaking, ‘Turn Blue’ is a darker, more difficult beast than its predecessors.
You’ve got Dan Auerbach’s divorce to thank for that, incidentally. Almost every song here can be interpreted as a cry for help, a howl of exasperation, or a curt ‘fuck-you’ to his ex-wife, with the caveat that it’s Auerbach himself who occasionally comes across as the asshole. The title track, sounding like a doleful, contemporized take on Dusty Springfield’s ‘Spooky’, opens with him at breaking-point, struggling to “Stay on track just like pops told me to,” but self-pity soon turns to callous disregard on the caustic blues of ‘It’s Up To You Now’, where he shrugs that, “You can smoke cigarettes and act like a clown if you want”. By the final track, he’s basically gloating: “I went from San Berdoo to Kalamazoo, just to get away from you.” She might have got the house, the car and, in one of the more bizarre settlements of recent years, Dan’s treasured lock of Bob Dylan’s hair, but he’s called dibs on the last laugh.
There’s another relationship to take into account, however, and it’s the one that has defined the entire second act of The Black Keys’ career. Since 2008’s ‘Attack & Release’, Danger Mouse’s role has grown from that of producer to co-songwriter and virtual third member, but there’s a nagging sense that their collaboration – beneficial though it’s been for all involved – has run its course. Nowhere does this seem more apparent than on tracks like ‘In Time’ and ’10 Lovers’, whose retro-futuristic psychedelia bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Broken Bells, albeit with the emphasis falling on the ‘retro’ side of that hyphen. There’s a lot to like about ‘Turn Blue’, but it’s a cruel irony that the heaviest hand in Dan Auerbach’s warts-and-all confessional sometimes seems to belong to his producer.