‘Turn Blue’: Music Fans Welcome, Pop Fans Beware

Dan and Pat

(Seemingly) Everyone’s favorite rock band released their eighth studio album, Turn Blue, today to mixed reviews from fans.  In my mind, almost every new album by a band that has reached “the big time” is a gamble.  If they change too much, “they’re abandoning their roots” and as a result “their songs suck.”  On the other hand, if a band doesn’t change enough people can become bored with the sound and think the band has become complacent.  Generally speaking, The Black Keys have managed to escape that paradoxical trap by doing their own thing.

Turn Blue is no different.  Taking suggestions from no one (well, except Danger Mouse), Dan and Patrick created an album that threatens the different types of fans The Black Keys have garnered over the years.  Firstly, there are the fans who have loved TBK since the beginning; or early enough.  They love the stripped-down bluesy, garage rock that the duo produced (and who doesn’t), but they were disappointed by Brothers and 2011’s El Camino was just a “blasphemous pop album.”  Turn Blue will not appease them.  It’s certainly not a pop album, but it also doesn’t return to their genesis.

The second type of TBK fan is one who discovered the band in the Danger Mouser-era (Brothers, El Camino, and now Turn Blue).  These fans love what they hear in those albums chock-full of singles, and don’t really care for the bare-bones albums of the early years.  Truly, these are pop fans and consequently they will not find solace in Turn Blue.

The third and final type of TBK fan is one who discovered the band at some point; the period in which they found the band does not matter.  This fan likes the band’s early stuff, finds the poppy albums fun-to-listen-to and is eager to hear anything the band has to offer. They’re a general fan of music and realize that bands adapt and evolve.  This fan could very well find pleasure in Turn Blue.

Turn Blue is an eclectic conglomeration of songs.  The album is an amalgam of disco, psychedelic rock, and soul.  Do not be misled and believe that this album came out of nowhere.  The songs are derivatives of early-TBK and their influences, though presented in a novel fashion.  Overall, the first two-thirds of the album is very strong, while the last third seems uninspired and, at times, overly contrived.  Find my track-by-track review below and take a listen to the album for yourself.

Turn Blue

“Weight of Love”

The Black Keys take their listeners on a trip to the upper echelons of the atmosphere for their first track.  The song begins with an acoustic guitar and simulated-sound that conjures images reserved for the stratosphere and beyond; or you could just drop acid and get the picture.  Pink Floyd fans are welcome.  Slowly a xylophone joins in the tune, followed by Carney on the drums, and finally a lonely fuzzed-out (though less fuzz than normal, to be sure) electric guitar, further solidifying the psychedelic feel of the introduction to Turn Blue.  What follows is somewhat unnatural for Dan Auerbach in the context of his project with Patrick Carney: a guitar solo.

Auerbach begins his first solo of the track with a sustained low-note and continues with a slew of slides, bends, hammer-ons, and pull-offs for a humble display of guitar prowess.  Just when the listener slips into the groove, the solo is over and they’re left with a simple bass-line, evocative of Death Cab’s “I Will Possess Your Heart,” until Dan comes in with the first lyrics of the song at 2:09.

I used to think, darlin’, you never did nothin’
But you were always up to somethin’

In true Black Keys fashion, the song’s lyrics are composed of two verses and two choruses.  Yep, that’s it; they famously keep it pithy.  Following the first chorus, Dan seems to pick up where he left off from his first solo, seamlessly transitioning into a smooth, Hendrix-esque fill.  The second verse and chorus follow and then the big one comes; the big solo, that is.  Again, taking a cue from Jimi, the solo employs soulful sounds with high highs and lows full of vibrato.  Auerbach does not shy away from using his wah-wah and chorus pedals throughout the ultimate solo.  After a tasty offering of licks, the solo ends and the outro begins.  Don’t worry, I won’t go in to as much detail for all of the songs.  “Weight of Love” demanded it, however, because it clocks in at 6:50 and it sets the tone for the album.

It’s a message for listeners: this album is going to shatter preconceived notions, create a new image of what is “quintessentially The Black Keys” and be fun to listen to.

“In Time”

The track opens with the muted playing of a guitar strings, a melodic line of “oooOOOoooOOOooo’s” and a matching piano line.  Next comes the drums, followed by the electric guitar following suit of the piano and vocals.  There’s a palpable psychedelic influence, deepened when the electric guitar fills the interludes with a doohickey that could be mistaken for a sitar.  Oh yeah, and Dan sings falsetto.

Falsetto is not a completely new aspect for The Black Keys.  Remember “Everlasting Light” from Brothers?  However, the falsetto coupled with the experimental sounds of the instruments seems to create an entirely new being.  One who has a remarkable vocal range.  While Auerbach sings the verses in falsetto, he skillfully reverts back to his anthemic voice, heard in the bulk of The Black Keys’ work.  Again, the listener is transfixed by the instruments on the track.  Not only because they are strikingly different, but because they’re worthy of being transfixed upon.  “In Time,” is one of my favorite off the new record, mostly because of the musical dexterity.

Pat and Dan

“Turn Blue”

“Turn Blue,” the record’s eponymous track, almost seems a subdued rendition of what The Black Keys are offering on their new album.  It may be that Dan and Pat included the track just so that fans of their earliest work would not completely lose their minds.  The song opens with a simple fill by Carney that rolls into a simple, yet big guitar riff.  Fairly unique to the record, however, is the steady presence of a bass in the background.  The Black Keys’ first few albums virtually only featured drums and guitar.  Because of that fact, both instruments tended to be in-your-face – the guitar often having enough of a complete sound to more than compensate for a bass.  While the guitar on “Turn Blue” is certainly derivative of the oldest Black Keys (bluesy), it would not be enough to have just that and the drums; it does not have the same thickness that can be found on earlier albums.  Dan, Pat, and producer-Danger Mouse released as much, obviously.

While “Turn Blue” is not my favorite track on the new album, it is a smooth blues jam that pleases me when I hear it.  I also enjoyed this single more than the first, “Fever.”

“Fever”

The first single off Turn Blue, turned out to be quite divisive.  The Black Keys purists – aka those who spat on Brothers and El Camino – found “Fever” nothing short of repulsive.  Don’t misunderstand me, I enjoy The Black Keys’ earliest albums more than the later ones, but I still think they were very good records; not garbage.  The same goes for “Fever”; it’s not my favorite, but it’s certainly not awful.

I think the much more endearing (though, I’m sure, not endearing to all) aspect of “Fever” is its music video.  Set in the religious South, Auerbach plays a televangelist.  He speaks passionately while the sweat pours from all areas of his body and the audience nods in agreement.  They’ve seemingly caught the fever.  All the while a phone number dominates the bottom half of the screen, inviting invitations from across the globe.  Those faithful donators’ names scroll across the bottommost portion of the screen.  Alright, so it could actually be quite offensive to some.

However, I think the message is much more palatable than one may think.  I don’t believe the message is against Christianity in general, just those who wrongly use the power of different faiths for their own financial gain.  In that respect I believe the video should be something even Christians consider a truth.

“Year in Review”

“Year in Review” is a bold track.  Drums start the listener off with a moderately-fast tempo, setting the time for a bass to join, and finally eight measures of high-pitched humming joins with an understated rhythm guitar.  Then the star of “Year in Review” begins: Dan Auerbach.  I’ve talked about how a few tracks on Turn Blue have been instrumentally focused, but this track is a display of Auerbach’s words and voice.

His voice raspy and his words appealingly punctuated, Auerbach begins “Year in Review” with the lyrics, “Why you always wanna love the ones who hurt you?”  With those words the listener is informed why Dan’s vocals have such a sense of urgency and an ostensible twinge of pain.

“Bullet in the Brain”

This track opens with an acoustic guitar, evidently a slow ballad, until the synthesizer fires up, begins offering some Jim Morrison-desert-like melody and then the incantation begins: “Buuuulllleeettt iiinnnn thhheeee brraaiiiinnn.”  The aura quickly escalated into a trip-inspired number much the like the stoner-rock album of Arctic Monkeys, Humbug, and just about every Queens of the Stone Age album, but especially Like Clockwork.

The hypnotic-fashion of the song seems fitting considering that the song is likely referring to Auerbach’s recent divorce.  Apparently Auerbach’s wife attempted suicide by cutting on at least two occasions in front of their daughter.  In Auerbach’s mind, Stephanie thought it easier to die than to remain the same in the relationship.  It was almost as if she were in a trance, which is why the nature of the song is so fitting.

“It’s Up To You Now”

This track includes something that listeners haven’t heard too much from The Black Keys: a transition of tempo in the middle of a song.  Some bands, like my beloved Say Anything, often change tempo in the middle of a song creating a unique and multi-faceted experience, but The Black Keys haven’t really experimented with the practice.  Remember, however, that they’re all about experimenting now.

“It’s Up To You Now” begins with a beefed up electric guitar-rhythm that should definitely remind anyone of classic TBK.  Dan’s voice enters the equation adding typical howl-style vocals things start to feel like normal again (whatever that is).  Suddenly the track slows down and the guitar takes front stage, adding a funky flair to the straightforward riff that dominated the song up to that point.  After a time, the song picks up where it left off, the power-riff returns and things become orderly again.  But, the fact that the song switched tempo to begin with makes it inherently unorderly, right?

“Waiting on Words”

One of my least favorite on this album.  Again, that’s not to say that the song is awful, just that it’s outshined.  “Waiting on Words” is a track sung entirely in Dan’s gripping falsetto voice.  It’s an airy track that capitalizes on the basic guitar licks and full-sounding acoustic guitar that makes itself a permanent resident.  In similar fashion, the lyrics are also straightforward.  It’s a break-up song.  The main tag is as follows, “Goodbye, I heard you were leaving.”  Thankfully, that’s not the last of Turn Blue.

“10 Lovers”

The ninth track on Turn Blue begins like it’s going to be some larger-than-life bit of funk, what with opening with a beefy bass line that becomes the foundation of the song.  A new sound, even for this very new album, comes next: a melody led by a Hammond organ.  Despite these bold opening notes, the song falls into a rut.  “10 Lovers” lacks energy that other songs on the album have, and for that it is one of my least favorite songs on Turn Blue.

I do think there is potential for the song to be much better live, however.  With Dan’s arena-penetrating voice and an enthusiastic crowd, “10 Lovers” could be more of a show-pleaser than a studio-gem.

Jammin

“In Our Prime”

The best aspect of “In Our Prime” is the guitar-portion of the first minute and ten seconds.  Again, The Black Keys experiment with changing pace in the middle of a song, this specific track pulling loose cues from The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”  But, this song is not that song.  The entire song feels forced, and their methodology behind making this record seems to show – that is, showing up to the studio without songs prepared.  Sometimes that process can result in prolific contributions to music, and other times the process can fall flat.  Unfortunately, for me, this is a case of the latter.  The song seems to be Auerbach trying a bunch of different things and throwing them into a song without a common denominator.

“Gotta Get Away”

This might be The Black Keys’ most forthright rock song on the entire record.  It’s the shortest track on Turn Blue and one might confuse the overall sound as a CCR song.  It’s a playful, tested work that draws obvious influences from late-1960s/ early-70s southern rock.  The hook, quite catchy though not very profound repeats the following:

I went from San Berdoo to Kalamazoo
Just to get away from you
I searched far and wide, hopin’ I was wrong
But baby all the good women are gone

If you’re like me, this song will also recall Steve Miller Band’s “Rock’n Me” and that’s not a terrible thing.  Dan and Pat again showed what generations they draw their influences from and imitated them.  You know what they say: Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.

The Black Keys will hold a Turn Blue World Tour with Cage the Elephant, Jake Bugg, and St. Vincent (all in certain locations).

Brent Glass is a Michigander who graduated from Eureka College in May of 2013. He spent time at the Sagamore Institute in Indianapolis, IN (a non-partisan think tank) where he worked on political economy pieces for Detroit, MI and Elkhart, IN. Additionally, he spent the summer of 2012 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA, working on social media management. Currently he is creating a social media management business (Connect You Consulting) and working full-time as a Management Assistant to the owner of a car dealership. He plans to further his education in the fall of 2014 at Wayne State University in pursuit of a Ph.D. in Urban Development.

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