Album Reviews | The Black Keys – Turn Blue (2014)

Attack & ReleaseI’m still pretty new to the Black Keys; Turn Blue is the first album of theirs that I have actually bought. (It’s not on Spotify, so it’s not like I had a choice.) Their previous three albums — Attack & Release (2008), Brothers (2010), and El Camino (2011) — are in my iTunes library, but only because I checked out copies of them on CD from the library and imported them. I still haven’t listened to them as much I as I should have by this point, and in fact El Camino is the only one that resembles a favorite of mine. To be honest, I haven’t listened to Attack & Release at all; as for Brothers, I am much more familiar with its ubiquitous (and excellent) single “Howlin’ for You” than the album itself. I really can’t stress “Howlin’ for You”‘s ubiquity enough — it was all over the radio, on TV, in movies; it put the band in the mainstream, and on my own map as well.

BrothersFor years I had resisted the Black Keys for whatever reason. I wasn’t that impressed with 2000s indie rock — this was back when there was at least some semblance of a difference sound-wise between mainstream (i.e., alternative) and indie (i.e., indie as a style), even if, mechanically speaking, there wasn’t much of a difference record label-wise. I was forever complaining that indie rock didn’t have enough meat on its bones — an assertion I still make today about music from that time period, to be sure. But with Brothers‘ first single “Tighten Up” and “Howlin’ for You,” the Black Keys definitely crossed over into the mainstream. The sound just had more heft, and they were rewarded with airplay on alternative rock stations; “Tighten Up” reached #1 and “Howlin’ for You” reached #3 on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart.

The Black Keys - El Camino (Reduced)El Camino, which followed in December 2011, was an international smash and won the Grammy for Best Rock Album; its lead single “Lonely Boy” won Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song. It’s a damn good album, and it finally won me over as a follower of the Black Keys, even though I still didn’t make the transition to fan status. For some reason, I was a late comer; I didn’t want to believe the hype. And as with most international successes that are deserved (e.g., Michael Jackson after Thriller and Adele after 21), we had to wait a while (relatively speaking — the Black Keys are pretty prolific) for the follow-up, Turn Blue, which surfaced in the spring of 2014. Of course, the source of the wait was likely the enormous tour the Black Keys embarked upon in 2012-2013, which spanned 129 dates and featured the band as a headliner for the first time.

They have diligently earned their stardom, of that there is no doubt, and Turn Blue opened at #1 in America, moving 164,000 copies in its first week of release. It’s their first #1 album (Brothers and El Camino peaked at #3 and #2, respectively), and it’s a good one to boot, even if it isn’t as good as its predecessors. It’s a softer record; whereas Brothers and El Camino pushed everything in the mix right up front, Turn Blue is slightly more elusive due to its hazy psychedelia. I suppose Turn Blue could turn out to be a better album that Brothers or El Camino, but I have listened to it plenty of times now and I feel like I have absorbed just about every nuance. As of now, I’m making the call that Turn Blue simply isn’t as engrossing as its predecessors — the songwriting isn’t quite as sparkling.

Thankfully, though, there are still plenty of highlights: “10 Lovers” is a terrific stomp of a song, and is easily one of my favorite songs of 2014. The opener, “Weight of Love,” is certainly the longest track at nearly seven minutes and contains many of the ideas explored throughout the album (namely ’70s psychedelia), not to mention it is bolstered by its solid guitar work that has an “open air” quality. It’s an inviting sound, to say the least, and it’s a testament to the Black Keys that even when they explore new territory they find a way to still keep their music so fundamentally appealing. (The title track is perhaps the best example of this.) At times, however, they go a little overboard — the way “Bullet in the Brain” swirls around with the “open air” aspect of the production is a bit over the top. But overall, Turn Blue is another mark in the win column for the Black Keys, and it’s an album I’ll be listening to again and again for some time.

Turn Blue is a really solid effort from the Black Keys that finds them exploring new territory while still maintaining their authentic retro sound and approach. It may not be as strong as Brothers or El Camino, but the level of craft outpaces a vast majority of the Black Keys' peers by a wide margin.
  • Exceptional sense of craft
  • Authentic, unique sound that pulls from influences instead of merely replicating them
  • There is a joy in hearing these artists at work
  • At times, the production feels a little hollowed out (see "Bullet in the Brain")
  • Songwriting isn't quite as sparkling as we have become used to from the Black Keys
  • Some dynamic range compression

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