Features /// The Black Keys Turn Blue

For their new album, singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Pat Carney wipe the sawdust off their leather jackets and try on something new.

black-keys-1399042102With their latest album, Turn Blue, The Black Keys flung open the garage door to step out into a psychedelic, new world. Turn Blue marks the eighth studio album for the duo that has overtaken the realm of alternative rock with simple melodies, crunching guitar sounds and catchy hooks.

When creating “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” John Lennon supposedly told George Martin that he wanted listeners to smell the sawdust on the floor. And for much of their career, The Black Keys have given us just that—a gritty, overdriven sound in an auditory blend of cigarette smoke and that weird film on barroom tables. For their new album, singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Pat Carney wipe off the sawdust from their leather jackets and try on something new.

The album opens on “Weight of Love,” a song spanning nearly seven minutes in length. Auerbach breaks in singing after the two-minute mark, following an instrumental stretch many have compared to Pink Floyd.

An acoustic guitar plays against what sounds like a glockenspiel, while synthesizers create an air of weightlessness and calm. Amid this groovy intro, a distorted guitar—in true Black Keys fashion—touches down like a jagged lightning bolt. Auerbach’s tonality echoes the overall tranquil feel of the song, though his lyrics ring much harsher.

“I got to think those days are comin’ to get ya/Now nobody want to protect yah/They only want to forget yah,” he sings.

While The Black Keys recorded this album, Auerbach underwent a divorce from his now ex-wife, Stephanie Gonis. This sense of melancholy bleeds into several tracks, regarding the weight of love as some sad, sea-rusted anchor.

To my ears, the most Pink Floyd-like song comes on the second track, with “In Time.” Carney sets a strong, marching tempo on his kit, with Auerbach answering in percussive vocals, reminiscent of the school children in “Another Brick in the Wall.”

But enough of who they may sound like. The most striking element of the album lies in what The Black Keys don’t sound like, including previous incarnations of themselves.

Their third song and the title track, “Turn Blue,” pulls out any shades of rock to leave a cool, old-fashioned blues feel, harkening back to Memphis. Carney opens with pounding drums, as Auerbach glides around the blues scale. In the chorus, Auerbach’s mellow singing echoes against rippling synthesizers, pulling in more psychedelic sounds.

As “Turn Blue” fades, the next track, “Fever” kicks in the door with a strong, recognizably Black Keys hook.

“Acting right is so routine,” Auerbach sings in the opening verse.

And after the first three tracks, “Fever” feels like a routine song for the duo. The rawness from “Brothers” and “El Camino” remains missing, but the hummable, radio-friendly melody feels like a classic Auerbach piece. The band released the song as a single nearly two months before the album. One explanation for the song’s familiarity to Black Keys fans may lie in that the band recorded it in one of their earliest sessions, in a Michigan studio in Jan. 2013. In an interview with NPR in May, Auerbach said he began with the song’s striking melody, building outward, while trying to keep it simple.

For the sake of keeping this review short, I’ll skip to the final track on the album, “Gotta Get Away.” The song opens with the feel of classic, American rock, as a distorted guitar riff gives way to the wailing notes of an electric piano. Carney keeps the song steady, upbeat, dare I say, dance-like. Auerbach’s vocals leap to and fro in a sing-song sort of way, describing the ups and downs of both music and love.

“With a one track mind if you don’t get lucky/some time/But still I’m tryin’,” Auerbach sings in the final verse.

With their latest album topping the Billboard 200, and several Grammys already nestled in their trophy case, the question lingers as to what more could The Black Keys try for. I mentioned the anecdote earlier from The Beatles developing their “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” record. While “Turn Blue” doesn’t quite ascend to that plateau, I think it does mark a Rubber Soul, turning-point moment for The Black Keys, as an already established band prepares to revolutionize modern rock n’ roll.

– Barrett M. 

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