Recording of August 2014: Turn Blue

The Black Keys: Turn Blue
Nonesuch 7559795555 (LP/CD/HDtracks download). 2014. Black Keys, Danger Mouse, prods.; Kennie Takahashi, eng.; Collin Dupuis, Geoff Neal, Bill Skibbe, asst. engs.; Tchad Blake, mix. TT: 45:09
Performance ****
Sonics ****

There was a time when calling the Black Keys "sexy" would have been thought perversely stunted, given that they were a two-man, raw-as-hell, blow-me-down, frat-rock grinder that jammed and pounded and convinced everyone that their version of Tony Joe White's groove was something new and revolutionary.

Yet their eighth studio record is so smooth and downright dreamy in spots, white-soul music crossed with psychedelic rock and tinted slightly blue, and all so slick—there, I said it—that it's downright scary.

Turn Blue sounds and feels like a much-needed change forward for a band that seemed to have come to the highest expression of its best ideas on the Grammy-winning El Camino (2011). With Turn Blue, guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney seemed to have understood it was time to grow or die.

That leap has been immeasurably aided by producer and keyboard player Brian Burton, who works under the nom de Pro Tools of Danger Mouse. These days Burton is a de facto third Black Key, and his influence has never been clearer than on Turn Blue, where the double tracking, overzealous panning, and constant presence of keyboards—some essential, some merely ornamental—have brought much-needed extensions and refocusings of the band's increasingly two-toned musical palette.

The album's opening Free Bird epic, "Weight of Love," is a convincing example of the Keys' new directions. After an overtly psychedelic opening with more than a few flashes of Pink Floyd, the tune, if you can call it that, morphs into an example of the band's now finely honed sense of what sells and what plays to arena-sized crowds, which they clearly have no intention of abandoning: a double-tracked guitar tangle that sounds a bit like a Neil Young freak-out à la "Like a Hurricane."

That's followed by the album's obvious single, "Fever," a fascinating hybrid of Burton's sensitivity to dance music crossed with the Keys' commercial instincts. This EDM jam, is led by a slightly off-kilter organ (perhaps a Farfisa) hook, Auerbach's falsetto, and Carney's drumming—which still has some of the old stomp, but with the rough edges now smoothed away. This is Sly Stone crossed with "Superfly," and another sure-to-satisfy live-staple-in-waiting. In "Bullet in the Brain," a clear lift from Pink Floyd's "Breathe" swings back and forth in the opening and behind the chorus. And lest anyone think that the two-man blues-rock paradigm is permanently altered in "It's Up to You Now" Carney and Auerbach revisit their past with plenty of bash-and-crash jamming.

Yet despite such likable, populist touches, much of El Camino's aggressive, eager-to-please, arena-rock–ready appeal has faded in favor of a murkier, quieter, ultimately darker mood. Much of this is due to the lyrics, which hint at personal transformations led by Dan Auerbach's divorce, and a pronounced weariness with women, who've gone from being conquests and objects of horny affection to vortices of heartbreak and wrecked desire. In "Bullet in the Brain," he asks, "I know I share the blame for what's in store / I was in the wrong but weren't you in it more?" This trend is most striking in the regretful "In Our Prime," which opens with "Pour me down the drain, I disappear / Like every honest thing I used to hear," before admitting that "Every now and then / I see a face from way back when / and I explode," and concluding with the palpable exhaustion of "We made our mark when we were in our prime."

Yet the darkness is not all-enveloping—the crunchy guitars and good-time barroom bounce of the Faces hover over Turn Blue's closer, "Gotta Get Away," which is trashy in endearing ways, and echoes Woody and Stewy in such inane lyrics as "I went from San Berdoo to Kalamazoo / just to get away from you."

Comparing the CD, LP, and 24-bit download editions of Turn Blue is a fascinating exercise in listening choices. Overall, the sound on all three is very good, yet those who miss the Black Keys' former rawk persona will want the CD for the way in which you can hear the compression, judiciously applied, that is common to all digital-age rock records. Enough of that punch remains in the 24-bit/44.1kHz download to make it seem the version to have—though of course the fairly quiet pressing on 180gm vinyl has the impressive, immersive warmth that gives analogphiles their uncompromising zeal.—Robert Baird