Review: The Black Keys, ‘Turn Blue’


The Black Keys, Turn Blue © Nonesuch

The Black Keys channel devastating divorce on latest LP Turn Blue

The Black Keys • Turn Blue • Nonesuch • US Release Date: May 13, 2014

Divorce typically carries a negative connotation; it’s a heart-wrenching experience for both parties involved. Turning the horrid experience that is a divorce into an album certainly can be as therapeutic as a diary – it is a way to release the pain. Indie-rockers The Black Keys channel the topic of love gone wrong via divorce on their latest LP, Turn Blue, the follow-up to 2011 hit LP El Camino.

 The Black Keys play a special performance outside the Ed Sullivan Theater in NYC to promote their new record Turn Blue. New York 05/12/2014 © WENN

Turn Blue is a very different album from El Camino, possessing a much darker, often pessimistic vibe. Genuinely upbeat, up-tempo tracks like “Howling For You” and “Lonely Boy” are hard to find without ‘strings attached’. Still, the contrast in tone of this Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) assisted effort is interesting, yielding another interesting albeit it contrasting album from the duo.

The Black Keys open up Turn Blue ambitiously with the seven-minute juggernaut “Weight Of Love”. A pro about the length and track itself is that it feels as if The Black Keys have ample time to truly express themselves and convey their messaging; it doesn’t feel rushed. Too often these days, the focus is on making a record for radio and not indulging a bit more into instrumental build up and development, riding the groove, letting it ride out, etc.

Dan Auerbach’s vocals don’t enter until after the two-minute mark, once things have been properly set up musically.   “Weight Of Love” truly is heavy, whether it’s the pounding drums, the yearning, wailing electric guitar, or Auerbach’s soulful vocals. “You’ll be on my mind / don’t give yourself away / to the weight of love…” Heavy stuff Dan – heavy stuff. And so it begins.

In Time” is a bit more standard in both length and conception.   The relaxed neutral syllabic vocals during the instrumental introduction are a nice, soft touch compared to the overt, driving groove. The use of piano also is a lighter sound, contrasting the syncopated rhythm of the pounding drums and the in-your-face guitars.

“In Time” definitely sounds like it could’ve appeared on a soul record, given its rhythmic nature and Auerbach’s falsetto. That said, there are definite contrasts compared to the Key’s previous work. The production is definitely nebulous, but that also suits the vibe of the album.

“When the music is done and all the lights are low / I would remember the times where love would really glow,” Auerbach sings on the second verse of groovy title track “Turn Blue”. He finishes the verse stating “Like a dream I had before my world turned blue / when the light inside would only shine for you”.

“Turn Blue” could have any number of meanings – the duo themselves offered several options to choose from – but what sticks the most with me personally is loss of love, meaning the “turning blue” is more figurative and emotional as opposed to literal. Regardless of the interpretation the listener makes, “Turn Blue” is easily a top-echelon cut – definitely a standout.

After the moody “Turn Blue”, the only shade of optimism that “Fever” offers comes musically via the acceleration of the tempo.   Still set in a minor key, the “fever” of which Auerbach speaks is potentially ‘deadly’, at least figuratively speaking: “Fever cause I’m breaking / fever got me aching / fever why don’t you explain? / Break it down again / Fever got me guilty / just go ahead and kill me…”

If you didn’t gather the reference to a relationship from the onset, it is later confirmed poetically: “Now if the cold, pale, light in your eyes / reaches those horizon lines / you know not to leave her…” Obviously love can be a five-letter word, but “Fever” is a different five-letter word – GREAT. By the way, the lushness of that last chord – awe-inspiring (and purposely not in tune for effect)!

The Black Keys play a special performance outside the Ed Sullivan Theater in NYC to promote their new record Turn Blue. New York 05/12/2014 © WENN

On “Year in Review”, the distortion and harshness of Auerbach’s vocals is a nice touch, truly adding another level of ‘grit’. The chorus keeps things simple and definitely provides a life lesson more people could stand to adhere to: “Just leave it alone”.

The context is that rather than asking more hurtful questions or dwelling in a ‘bed of pain’, you should walk always and leave things as they are. Lines like “And when you hear about the lies other people are sayin’ / just know they talk cause they don’t have a way inside” or “You can never find a soul that’s got no pain within / just like you’ll never find a singer without that sin…” truly confirm the perceived nonchalance that Auerbach has about, well BS.

Bullet in the Brain” is a truly a hard track to listen to, given its realistic nature and description of a marriage going south. “Bullet in the brain,” Auerbach sings on the chorus. “I prefer than to remain the same”. Literally or figuratively, this seems to be a suicidal reference to ending life as opposed to staying in the marriage.

Honestly, there is nothing triumphant to be found here – everything is damaged, dark, and destroyed. Lyrics like “Hearts began to rust / the diamond turned to dust” (Verse one) and “I let you use my gifts / to back your lying lips / I’ll never know just what I did it for” (Verse two) confirm just how bad things got.

It’s Up to You Now” doesn’t bask in misery like “Bullet in the Brain”, but is a definitely companion cut exhibiting more of an I.D.G.A.F. attitude (add another “F” if you’d like). Basically, the sentiment is that things are over and now it’s in ‘her’ hands to get it together for herself. “You wanted to love, but you didn’t know how / that’s okay, its up to you now”. The tempo is quick throughout (save for a switch-up which slows it a bit), matching the newfound strength that the protagonist exhibits.

Then on “Waiting on Words”, Auerbach contrasts his harsher tone for one smoother, conveying both ‘leaving’ and still that slight sliver of hope: “Oh goodbye / I heard you were leaving / won’t try changing your mind / goodbye, don’t know where you’re going / the only think I really know / My love for you is real, I”.

On “10 Lovers”, Auerbach keeps things ‘one hundred’. “If I found another love / they must be forever true”, he sings on the second verse. “Cause if someone breaks this heart / your old man right here is through.” In other words, if Auerbach finds what he feels is ‘true love’ and it falls short of that, he is not only through with love itself, but it could literally kill him. “The house it burned, but nothing there was mine / we had it all when were in our prime…” Aye yi yi! What a messy situation Danny boy was in!

Penultimate cut “In Our Prime” definitely eliminates predictability, changing from a more lethargic tempo to one quicker with more assertion. The lyrics are also edgier, again driven by the broken relationship: “Every now and then I see your face from way back when and I explode / friends no longer egg me on, they bullsh*t serenade me like it’s gold”.

The Black Keys play a special performance outside the Ed Sullivan Theater in NYC to promote their new record Turn Blue. New York 05/12/2014 © WENNGotta Get Away” closes a chapter – and the album itself. Everything about “Gotta Get Away” suggests the release of a heavy burden, specific the major-key, enthusiastic, and vintage rock and roll quality. “I went from San Berdoo to Kalamazoo / Just to get away from you”, sings Auerbach, “I searched far and wide, hopin’ I was wrong / but baby all the good women are gone.” Judging by this joint, Dan Auerbach did just want Idina Menzel has been singing to any number of kids lately: “Let it go! Let it go!”

Ultimately, how does Turn Blue stack up? Let’s address ‘the elephant in the room’. This is by no means The Black Keys’ best album, first and foremost. With my Black Keys experiences beginning post Attack and Release (an album often mentioned from their discography), my favorite Keys album is Brothers. But we’re not here to evaluate previous works, only this one. Given what it is – an album drenched in a dysfunctional, messed up relationship – the tone and overall conception is solid. Perhaps The Black Keys could’ve developed this album even better, but the pieces and the concept are in place. When it’s all said and done, this is a still a notable effort.

Favorites“The Weight of Love,”“Turn Blue,” “Fever,” “Bullet in the Brain,” “Gotta Get Away” 

★★★★

Photo credits: © Nonesuch, © wenn
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