Review: The Black Keys, Turn Blue

If Turn Blue entices you with a seductive whisper.
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If Turn Blue entices you with a seductive whisper.
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opinion byBENJI TAYLOR < @benjitaylormade >

If there’s one thing guaranteed to cause you to take stock and reassess where you are in life it’s a case of good old-fashioned heartbreak. For artists, that knife through the heart can often unleash a hidden well of unbridled creativity. Talking about your problems, we’re told, is one of the best forms of healing. But singing about them – distilling that dark meld of malaise and misery and setting it against the backdrop of a wall of sound - that’s a form of therapy musicians have been employing since Orpheus first picked up the lyre.

Be wary of the reports labelling The Black Keys’ latest LP as their sexiest LP yet. Make no mistake a about it: Turn Blue is very much a break-up record. Opener "Weight of Love" puts to bed any notions that The Black Keys are gifting us with El Camino: Part II. When contrasted with the first track from their anthem-stuffed seventh LP - the rip-roaring, hair-raising, Jägermeister-swilling sucker-punch of "Lonely Boy" – "Weight of Love" betrays the very different path that Turn Blue will take. It’s one with less immediacy, more subtlety, and reduced brashness. The seven minute epic is a sprawling sea of heavy blues flecked with slivers of dark, gloomy funk. It takes more than two minutes before Auerbach’s world-weary vocal is introduced, and it finishes with a raft of Jimmy Page-esque guitar solos.

Thematically the album is similar to much of their canon: broken hearts, fractured dreams and the ever-present threat of imminent loneliness populate the soundscapes. An ardent dismissal of the enduring nature of love shrouds the songs, and the ghostly spectre of Auerbach’s ex-wife, with whom the singer finalised his divorce during the recording of the album, looms large throughout. The clearest revelation that this is Auerbach’s break-up album is on "Bullet in the Brain," with his confession that “Hearts began to rust/ The diamond turned to dust”, before acknowledging that singing about the trials and tribulations of their blighted romance is its own form of therapy:  “You made me talk the pain all out of me...” Elsewhere, on the excellent "Year In Review," Auerbach sings “Why you always wanna love the ones who hurt you/ Then break down when they go and desert you”, a sentiment that’s echoed with the chorus of the opening track, when he urges us to shield ourselves from the weighty burden of love.

Though lyrically and thematically it’s their most self-reflective and revealing album, it’s still a slyly seductive and eminently danceable LP.  Danger Mouse returns to produce, a man who - on Broken Bells’ last LP After The Disco - proved that he can skilfully weave narrative threads of heartbreak and melancholy through song structures designed for you to get your groove on. Hooks are plentiful, but the focus has shifted from El Camino’s galaxy-sized choruses to prioritising mood over melody. Whereas the songs on El Camino would drag you on to the dancefloor by the scruff of your neck with a cheeky slap on the ass, Turn Blue entices you onto the floor with a seductive whisper in the ear.

The Black Keys remain masters of cultural appropriation, meshing everything from Sixties soul, Krautrock, and Beatles-era psychedelia to the blues-rock core of the song structures on Turn Blue. "In Time" sees Auerbach’s falsetto married to brooding funk-rock, while closer "Gotta Get Away" is a dumb but fun, filthy and boozy rock ‘n’ roll romp. Lead single "Fever" is a swirling, multi-layered space-age foray into rock ‘n’ psychedelia, propelled by full-bodied bass guitar and a hypnotic wailing organ - and more of Auerbach’s reverb-drenched falsetto. Key to it all is that - though it’s stylistically diverse - its central theme of doomed romance keeps it sounding coherent.

There’s an age-old adage that success stems from a fusion of talent and luck. That The Black Keys have the former in abundance is in no doubt, but their monstrous accomplishment – their stratospheric ascent to becoming one of the biggest bands in the world – is also born from being in the right place at the right time. Nashville neighbors’ Kings of Leon's murky slide into artistic irrelevance and the implosion of arch-nemeses The White Stripes left a creative void for intelligent and ballsy rock ‘n’ roll – a need for a messianic figurehead to pick up the sword and be its champion. El Camino was the sound of The Black Keys flexing their muscles as they reached for that sword, but Turn Blue is the sound of the band baring their soul and testing the parameters. B+