Oh Black Keys, what have thee done? Was it over-ambition or a lack of? The Black Keys have always benefitted from a more stripped back style as evidenced on their 2004 release, Rubber Factory, but since their break into the mainstream on their 2008 record Attack & Release, the Keys have favoured an approach that tries to pack as much instrumentation as possible. Fans often attribute the downfall of the Keys’ more garagey blues rock style to famed producer Danger Mouse, but his track record suggests it’s not entirely his fault. His work on albums such as the collaboration with underground hip-hop legend MF DOOM, The Mouse and the Mask, and even on alternative rock’s poster boy Beck’s Modern Guilt show his talented production style, thus maybe Danger Mouse is merely a scapegoat here.
When Dan Auerbach lost his almighty beard, a change began – a sort of regeneration for the band. Gone was the gritty sound that made them an adequate challenger to the White Stripes’ garage/blues sound in favour of a more produced and tighter style bringing backing vocals and strings. And yet again, the Keys have brought this sound to their latest LP. Tracks on the 2010 album Brothers such as ‘Everlasting Light’ and even “Nova Baby” on 2011’s El Camino packed the right amount of punch alongside tight production to work to create enjoyable and appealing tunes, but ultimately their edge was lost and the steady decline of their heavy blues rock aesthetic has culminated in Turn Blue.
The album does begin on a high point however: a swirling epic that builds into a perfectly executed solo crescendo. But the faults in the album can even be seen here, and after this track the album starts to feel like the musical equivalent of a mud slide – the longer it goes on the weightier and more bloated it gets. On the second track, ‘In Time’, Auerbach wails a cacophonous falsetto melody over a keyboard playing the exact same tune and the journey into the Black Keys’ tired sound commences. Although the next track ‘Turn Blue’ offers a catchy hook in its chorus, it is hampered by a horrible synth noise, sounding like an 8-bit portal straight to hell itself, and whilst the sonic experimentation is commendable, the sound takes more away from the track than it adds. Previously, Auerbach’s guitar filled the space left by Patrick Carney’s drums, but it feels as if his lazy guitar work requires something else to fill the void, and thus this is where Danger Mouse feels he needs to add these unnecessary sound effects.
The album’s lead single ‘Fever’ opens with a thumping bassline followed by a ear-splitting keyboard lead, not a great start for the song the album was sold on. While the track’s appeal is obvious, the predictability of the song and the obvious choice of a melody to get stuck in the corners of your brain makes the song more of an annoyance than the hit it should have been. Predictability is not only a problem found in just this track however, but throughout the album as a whole. “Gotta Get Away” is easily the worst song the band has put out and probably the worst track put out all year. The song evokes feelings of a band made up of 50 year old men playing an open mic night to 7 people and can only be described as “cringeworthy”. Lyrically Auerbach does not make up for his shoddy musicianship. “Maybe all the good women are gone” he suggests, and it is probably due to boredom as a result of this album.
And sure, there is nothing wrong with changing one’s style and sound, and sure, if the Black Keys’ last 4 records were as gritty as their first 4, then they would have probably become stale and boring. But, the change and the sonic experimentation on this record is only detrimental to the Keys’ sound. There is no excitement to the strings or the synths, basslines are too weighty and all the energy of Dan’s riffs and solos as well Patrick’s drumming is lost. Maybe it’s Danger Mouse, maybe it’s the band’s desire to become more accessible or to be the first band to be labelled as “pop-blues”, but ultimately, the blame matters not. The Black Keys failed to deliver an enjoyable album and instead chose to produce music that is both lazy and catchy enough to soundtrack many a youth’s summer. Alas the first nail of what looks to be many has been firmly hammered into The Black Keys’ coffin.