All bands refine their sound over their careers – at least, the good ones do. The trick is to balance the original style or sound with new elements and ideas. Unfortunately, The Black Keys seemed so eager to do this on Turn Blue (their eighth studio album) that it became an outstanding disappointment.
All the crunchy guitars and bluesy rhythms that once defined The Black Keys are gone to make way for lifeless, often unnecessary, synth lines. Listen to the song, Turn Blue for instance. At first, it’s just a lacklustre and slow song, but turn the volume up and you’ll hear a constant whirling effect in the background. What does this add to the song? Nothing. Frankly, once you hear it for the first time, it’s all you’ll be able to hear. Sadly, this sums up the whole album. All the simplicity and rawness of the previous records has been replaced with too many bells and whistles in the form of keyboards and Dan Auerbach’s cringe-worthy falsetto vocals.
This is not to say that The Black Keys shouldn’t be allowed the artistic license to try new things with their music. Arctic Monkeys’ fifth album, AM, for instance, walks this fine line well. Songs like ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’ hark back to their earlier work, lyrically speaking, whilst sounding altogether more grown-up than songs off their first two albums. With Turn Blue, however, there is no sense of progression, only regression. How does, in any way, ‘Fever’ relate musically to ‘Busted’, ‘I Got Mine’ or ‘Sinister Kid’? It doesn’t. The Black Keys have replaced the very sound that made them famous with the ultimate dinner party soundtrack.
This brings us to the next criticism of The Black Keys – they’re desperate to cling on to the idea of themselves as a raw, two-piece rock band when, in reality, they play with bassists, back-up singers and the like on stage. This is fine, of course, but not when they try and keep this illusion up to their thousands of fans. For anyone looking for true two-piece bands, try Drenge, Deap Vally, Wet Nuns, or The Dead Tapes. Whilst The Black Keys once offered a real, gritty rock band for the modern music fan, all they offer now is an over-refined, pristine and sterile experience. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the album per se, but that there’s nothing particularly exceptional or memorable about it.
Turn Blue, however, should not come as a surprise. Brothers – their 2009 breakthrough – saw the perfect balance between their traditional sound with catchy songwriting more suitably tailored to radio-play or the casual listener. After this, though, The Black Keys seemed to have exhausted the possibilities of their style and turned in favour of a more keyboard-heavy sound as heard on El Camino. However, it is still possible to hear the influences of The Black Keys in this album, unlike in Turn Blue. ‘Little Black Submarines’, for instance, is a stand out track, starting with beautiful acoustic guitar work that ultimately builds into a rock anthem. Now, however, when Auerbach attempts to capture that old sound or feeling, it merely sounds like self-parody. All the talk of Atlanta and Kalamazoo in Gotta Get Away, for instance, sounds more like a rejected verse from Willie Nelson’s classic song, ‘On the Road Again’, than anything else.
Of course, there will be fans of Turn Blue. Probably, it must be said, there are more admirers than critics. However, taking a shot in the dark, it is also likely that most of these fans became listeners of The Black Keys during El Camino or possibly Brothers. Those who know the Keys first and foremost as a garage duo, on the other hand, are far less likely to enjoy their newer work and that’s fine. It shouldn’t be suggested that they just passionlessly pump out another riff-rock album. Conversely, they should be allowed to do whatever they want with their music. But Dan, please stop pretending you’re still the torch bearer for garage rock.
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I have to disagree, I’m afraid. The Black Keys’ recent releases have been some of their best – especially Turn Blue. The electro-vibes and synthesizers bring it into the 21st century; after all, who wants to listen to rockabilly blues anymore? The Black Keys were producing archaic music just 10 years ago, and are now recognisable as one of the biggest – and best – bands on the planet: that is the real story.