Whether consciously or unconsciously, The Black Keys’ latest album Turn Blue alludes to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon with its psychedelic cover, similar chords, and spacey ambiance. But Turn Blue suffers and pales in comparison to such a standard of technical, aesthetic, lyrical and conceptual brilliance.
Not that The Black Keys don’t have their merits. They do, and those merits certainly turn up in Turn Blue. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, the duo that comprises the band, are both solid musicians, and Auerbach’s gritty blues solos are satisfactorily present. He is no virtuoso, but he packs a fat tone and outstanding rock-melodic instincts. In “Weight Of Love,” Auerbach rips into solos with a supreme confidence, adding multiple layers of Allman Brothers-style guitar harmonies to powerful effect.
Drummer Carney, a MacGyver of rhythm-making, could probably drum up head-bobbing grooves from a Tic Tac and some paperclips. As has always been the case, Auerbach and he deliver an album chock-full of good hooks and catchy choruses, which is why, even as a young, struggling band, they got noticed and scored a licensing offer from a London-based mayonnaise company worth 200,000 pounds. They desperately needed the money at the time. But they turned it down because the idea of creating original, soulful music only to have it turned into a sales pitch for mayonnaise turned their stomachs.
Which introduces another of their merits: authenticity and a sense of musical integrity. They recorded their first several albums in Carney’s basement even after they had major label resources behind them. They became darlings of the DIY crowd and of purists—a badge they wore with honor. But principles don’t always convert easily into currency. After a couple more years of hardscrabble living, they got stronger stomachs and began selling music to the highest bidder.
Now, they make albums in a professional studio under producer Danger Mouse, who adds a sleek, future-fresh quality to their retro sound. Such decisions have steadily increased their exposure, catapulting them recently to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200. But something important may have been lost in the transaction since Turn Blue seems a bit muddled and overreaching. Several songs add a distracting level of electronic noise and gizmos, while other songs try (but fail) to be profound with observations like “Bullet in the brain / I prefer than to remain the same.”
The bottom line is this: The Black Keys are not poets or pioneers. They are groove-makers, pure and simple. They are at their best when they stick to their core competency of garage-grunge rhythm and blues songs. (They are also not Christians, as shown in their relentless and occasionally nihilistic focus on romance.) The intriguing “In Our Prime” combines all the best elements of the band’s music, while Auerbach ironically reflects, “Like every lover hovers in my mind, / we made our marks when we were in our prime.” Considering their drift toward pop and away from their roots, they spoke better than they knew.