The fact that Turn Blue, the eighth album by The Black Keys, is full of songs about being hurt by a woman shouldn’t be all that surprising. Although they, sonically speaking, haven’t been a dirty, traditionalist-leaning blues band in a few years now, they remain one at heart, which is why Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have continued to mine the “lovelorn/wronged/both man” perspective. But before the production of Turn Blue, Auerbach experienced the pain that’s usually limited to his protagonists. In the middle of the band’s most successful period yet, Auerbach was divorcing his now ex-wife (and the mother of his child), and by the end of the tour, the band said, in their own words, they “were this-your-brain-on-drugs-fried“. So what is surprising about Turn Blue is that despite the circumstances seemingly setting the band up perfectly to write a raw, dirty album full of “Next Girls“, “Psychotic Girls“, or “Hurt Like Mines” Turn Blue is the Keys’ most expansive, intricate album to date, and also one of their finest.
Although it follows the catchy, glam rock-indebted El Camino, Turn Blue is far more akin to 2010’s Brothers. Like Turn Blue, the latter album was written during a period of personal turmoil (Carney had just gotten divorced from his first wife, and was also harboring some acrimony towards Auerbach related to his own 2009 solo album, Keep It Hid), but the duo rekindled their relationship and made what would be their commercial breakthrough. Thematically, Brothers stuck to the aforementioned usual subjects, but took them on with a more layered, bigger sound that included more guitar tracks and keyboards, an idea first introduced on their previous album, 2008’s Attack and Release. Turn Blue‘s opening line – “I used to think/Darling, you never did nothing/But you were always up to something/Always at a run in” –suggests that they’re going down the same path they’ve walked down so many times before, but what implies otherwise is the lushly hazy two-minute introduction section that precedes that lyric. Glockenspiels and softly strummed acoustic guitar precede a tastefully restrained lead from Auerbach before the pair dive headfirst into the seven minute lament. In many ways, “Weight of Love” is a far cry from the band’s previous, often gritty output, and the band know it – the “Weight of Love” lyric “you’ll be on my mind/don’t give yourself away/to the weight of love” is as much of a bittersweet thesis statement for the album as it is a winking nod to their past work. After “Weight of Love”, the album only gets bleaker – “Bullet In The Brain”, “10 Lovers”, “In Our Prime” – but that’s fine, because Turn Blue‘s thematic consistency is one of its greatest strengths, particularly because it allows the group to focus the use of its newfound penchant for layered arrangements.
The other way Turn Blue is similar to Brothers is that both albums have a deep R&B influence running through them. Part of that can be attributed to the presence of de facto third member Danger Mouse, whose presence on keyboards has been key to the band expanding their sound ever since their first collaboration on Attack and Release. On Turn Blue, he continues to use the spaghetti-western-in-space production style he’s been using pretty consistently since 2010, but it works surprisingly well in tandem with the more organic production approach that Auerbach and Carney have picked up in their side gigs as producers. His headier inclinations combine with theirs to produce the heavy-but-agile, lightly psychedelic vibe that helps keep Turn Blue afloat. The other element that propels the album is the trio’s playing. Carney feels more deft than ever, playing less like a Rust Belt Ringo Starr and more comfortably alternating between motorik 4/4 hi-hat/snare beats and tumbling tom/snare patterns. Danger Mouse’s keyboard playing and programming is more prominent than ever, but he still plays a primarily atmospheric role, which is wise because Auerbach repeatedly steals the show on Turn Blue. While Auerbach has long been able to pull out a sludgy riff seemingly on demand, the band’s expansion has led him to (quietly) become a tasteful rhythm player since Brothers‘ release. His subtle, economic playing on “In Time” and “10 Lovers” anchors those songs, often allowing his vocals to sit front and center. That’s an especially good thing on Turn Blue, because not only is Auerbach’s voice stronger than ever, it’s often what sells his songs of woe. His melodic guitar leads help (“Fever”, “Bullet in the Brain”), but when it comes to dealing out heartbreak, no instrument does it better than the human voice (see: ask any singer/songwriter or R&B artist ever), and his return to the soul man persona he first used on Brothers on Turn Blue is its most crucial element. Used in conjunction with the other R&B elements on the album – the Motown strings, ghostly cooing backing vocalists – Auerbach is firing on all cylinders, and if someone ever gets around to making another Black Keys tribute album, they should seriously consider taking an R&B approach rather than calling Iggy Pop to do “Lonely Boy“.
For a minute, forget that The Black Keys aren’t licensing their songs to every other commercial and movie trailer, their albums aren’t going platinum (in 2014, no less), and they aren’t billed at the top of every festival in the world (save Glastonbury). Now, consider that they made, in this order, six good-to-great blues rock albums, one interesting-if-flawed hip-hop collaboration, an excellent garage/R&B hybrid disc, and an arena rock album in an era where arena rock is barely even a thing. All of this is to say that even when removed from its commercial context, Turn Blue is an unexpected and very rewarding turn for The Black Keys. However, considering how many Warner Bros. stakeholders are watching this week’s Billboard 200 only makes the album’s stylistic shift an even bolder move. Its opening song is seven minutes long. It’s undeniably a downer of an album. There are no riffs here that will be in next month’s issue of Guitar World. Aside from “Fever” – which is relatively underperforming at the moment – there is no other song viable as a number-one-with-a-bullet single here. Turn Blue isn’t quite Metal Machine Music-levels of commercial suicide, but it’s not doing any modern rock radio station programmers any favors either. But from an artistic standpoint, that’s highly encouraging. Not only does the album avoid the not-so-uncommon misstep of following a commercial breakthrough with something blustery and overblown, Turn Blue is something greater altogether – the expansive, stunning work of a band finding comfort in sound, playing music that exorcises the demons that traditionally plague bluesmen until they shake the hellhounds on their tail.