Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Black Keys Turn Blue Album Review

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: June 17, 2014

It would be easy to dismiss The Black Key’s latest studio album Turn Blue as nothing more than a hodgepodge of commodified pop drivel. When I first heard “Fever,” exuding like syrup from the car radio, I turned to a friend seated shotgun about a minute into the song and said, “Well, I guess the new Keys record’s gonna be a hodgepodge of commodified pop drivel.” Carney’s one-two groove struck me as boneheaded, something reserved only for nightclubs and annoying DJs, while Auerbach’s lyrics seemed cheap enough to be bought at a dollar store (“Fever ‘cause I’m breaking/Fever got me aching…”) and not to mention that synth line, which felt infectious in all the worst ways. But curiously enough neither my friend nor I changed the station. Listening to Turn Blue’s somewhat cloying first single was not unlike eating an entire container of ice cream: you’re disgusted with yourself for having savored every spoonful.

But this raises an interesting question. For a band responsible for the frenetic, fuzzy power of “10 A.M. Automatic,” or the delicate intensity of “Meet Me in the City” – an utterly enthralling Junior Kimbrough cover from the 2006 EP Chulahoma – or the strained but charming falsetto Auerbach employs throughout “Everlasting Light,” could one just pass off as a failure the production of an all-too-catchy, slightly vapid pop song like “Fever”? To do so, I feel, might be to take for granted the sincerity with which The Black Keys pluck every note and hit every beat. Seen in this light, maybe “Fever” was an earnest attempt to write an all-too-catchy, slightly vapid pop song, and if that was the initial intention, I’d say they hit their mark.

If at first I thought Turn Blue would be a slew of commercially viable radio hits, the opening track “Weight of Love,” probably the album’s strongest song, quickly dispelled such a notion. Clocking in at about seven minutes, the expected comparisons to “Stairway to Heaven” abound; as Kitty Empire, in a rather gushing review of the album, writes that the song “travels from Zeppelin pastorale through some serious guitar-shop soloing.” But Empire’s descriptions are misleading. The song’s structure is not of a Zeppelin-like complexity but instead consists of a few basic parts that are drawn out and repeated to the point of aural hypnosis. Auerbach’s solos are by turns exuberant and restrained, not the type of shredding you’d get from some whiz kid in Guitar Center. And what’s not mentioned in the reviews, so far as I've read, is the bass playing, which really stands out here and elsewhere throughout Turn Blue. As a lovelorn Auerback broods aloud, “I used to think, darling, you never did nothing/But you were always up to something…” the bass line circles around and in on itself, a sort of sonic representation of the album’s cover, creating a whirlpool into which the entire song – every word, chord, rhythm and airy embellishment – will eventually be drawn.

But the problem with opening a record with the strongest track is that, as you listen, the rest of the album seems to slowly deflate. After “Weight of Love,” the album for the most part feels like variations of the same song – a few times toward the end I even caught myself asking, “Didn’t I listen to this already?” and checked to see if my iPhone was on repeat. It wasn't. But that’s not to say there aren't any good songs to be had in the bulk of Turn Blue. With the exception of an irritating, vaguely gastric noise sitting needlessly in the background of the entire song, the title track recalls the gentle melancholy of “Never Give You Up” from Brothers, but instead of “Never gonna give you up/No matter how you treat me…” we get something a bit more sinister: “I really do hope you know/There could be hell below…” And “Bullet in the Brain” has all the same ingredients as “Fever” but without so much sap. But aside from those, the album becomes a little too homogeneous to be ranked among The Black Keys’ best, like Rubber Factory and Brothers.

The final song of Turn Blue, “Gotta Get Away,” comes as the album sputters out its last bit of air. It’s the only track that really sticks out on the album but, unfortunately, is also not far from being a convincing Lynyrd Skynyrd cover: “I went from San Berdoo to Kalamazoo/Just to get away from you/ I searched far and wide, hoping I was wrong/ But baby all the good women are gone…” I can only imagine they wrote this dad-rock anthem for the sole purpose of being asked to perform it at next year’s Super Bowl.

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