The Black Key’s Turn Blue: Turning the Heads of Fans and Critics Alike

The Black Keys, a two-man rock group that hails from Akron, Ohio, have had quite a string of commercially successful and critically-acclaimed albums the past few years. The popular duo released Brothers in 2010 and El Camino the following year to high praise. These two albums, especially the former, also put the band on the map with popular and catchy singles such as “Little Black Submarine,” “Lonely Boy,” and “Tighten Up.” However, although these two records gave the group the attention that they rightfully deserve, older Black Keys fans, those who have enjoyed the group from their debut The Big Come Up era, have liked the band’s sound less and less with each record since around the time they came out with Attack & Release in 2008. With a cleaner sound, these records demonstrate a slight shift with the music group, at least as far as producing is concerned. However, with the band’s newest 2014 album Turn Blue, the shift is much more noticeable, but just as soulful and Black Keys sounding as their last few records.

For those who despised the singles “Fever” and “Turn Blue,” it does get better. It isn’t that these tracks are not good (they fit snugly into the album as a whole), but they simply are not the hard-hitting and edgier songs that would make a good Black Keys single. In fact, there is not any song on Turn Blue that would sound like a great single, mostly because these songs are very relaxed for the band, like “Bullet in the Brain” and especially “Waiting on Words.” A couple of songs have great guitar solos with heavy drums, like the songs “Weight of Love” and “In Our Prime,” but they take too long to build up to be good singles. The Keys made the right decision in making “Fever” and “Turn Blue” singles, but this album has so much more to offer. It is an album that should not be judged on by its singles, but as a collective of songs.

A great element of this album is that the songs seamlessly meld together nicely, a feat that not even their older albums pulled off so well. If not for the conclusion of the guitar solo on the tail-end of “Weight of Love,” it would be hard to tell when “In Time” begins. Similarly, “Bullet in the Brain” and “Waiting on Words” are so mellow that, by the time the listener realizes that they are on another track, half the song has already been played. This is a great move by the band; it would be nonsensical to have another “Heavy Soul” or “Gold on the Ceiling” in the middle of this album to disrupt the flow and feelings that The Black Keys are trying to create.

The best songs on the record are “Weight of Love,” “Waiting on Words,” “Gotta Get Away,” and “In Our Prime.” “Waiting on Words,” the opener to the album, is a great way to start, with a slow drum beat that slowly incorporates Dan’s amazing vocals and reaches a climax with the best guitar solo on the entire album. It is slow enough to be an opener, yet loud enough to give the listener a taste of what is to about to come their way. On the closer track “Gotta Get Away,” the Keys do the exact same thing they did with the opener, except in reverse by starting with a Creedence Clearwater rock and roll sound to calm down and fade out by the end to give closure to the record. The other two tracks, “Waiting on Words” and “In Our Prime” showcase the best sounds of Turn Blue: the former’s psychedelic, smooth sound accompanied by Dan’s high-pitched falsetto vocals are the pinnacle of the calming and laid-back sound the band was going for with this record. However, “In Our Prime” showcases the best of the record and The Black Keys with great, soulful vocals, the best lyrics by far on the album, and another emotionally-draining rollercoaster ride of a guitar solo to end the track and remind listeners that this is the type of sheer blues-rock excellence that this band is capable of. These songs easily stand as some of the best tracks ever written by the Keys thus far, and are a must-listen even to the harshest critics of this album.

Some critics felt that Danger Mouse, the co-producer on this album who also helped create Brothers and El Camino had overstayed his welcome on this new LP. Sure, there are new guitar effects and synthesizers, and yes, we note the slight reverb added to Dan’s falsetto singing voice in the tracks on here. However, that is not to say that Danger Mouse, the co-producer, has changed the band so much that they have become unrecognizable. Dan Auerbach’s soulful and raw vocals are still capable of cutting through just about every song on this record. Patrick Carney’s strong drum solos are lacking a bit on this record, and, along with the lack of stellar, stand-alone singles, are probably the biggest misstep that the band took when making the album. However, being psychedelic blues-rock that sounds eerily similar to parts of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, hardcore drum solos are not necessary, and would actually detract somewhat from the moody and melodic flows that many of these songs, such as “Waiting on Words,” have. The great guitar melodies and riffs that the Keys are known for on albums like Magic Potion are still there, albeit with a few effects tagged on to them. One only has to through all the layers of the guitar effects and synthesizers to find that the signature, solid Black Keys sound everyone claims to have disappeared is still at the heart of their music.

It seems that people must compare Turn Blue to its grittier and less-polished predecessors like Thickfreakness and Rubber Factory, and they do have a point somewhat. As this generation’s musicians grow up, their styles evolve; artists such as country-turned-pop singer Taylor Swift, Disney child star to “Wrecking Ball” phenomenon Miley Cyrus, bluesy-turned-country-folk John Mayer, and old-school producer to industrial hip-hop instrumentalist Kanye West all show a shift towards change with their latest albums. And, on some level, it is interesting to study how and why these artists change their styles. However, what is often overlooked when making these comparisons is the quality and likability of the new songs. Personally, I enjoy Kanye West’s 2013 Yeezus with songs like “Black Skinhead” just as much as The College Dropout and Late Registration with songs like “Jesus Walks” and “Gold digger.” For some artists, this shift towards change works in their favor: Taylor Swift’s last albums, Red and 1989, sound much better to me than her previous work. Therefore, when people go into Turn Blue and claim that the band has sold-out or adopted a more polished and less emotional sound than on previous records, they are missing the point of music. The Black Keys do not, and should not, make songs just to maintain the same style; they should strive to improve and mature musically. So when listening to Turn Blue, or any song in general, do not think of comparing it to the band’s other records; just sit back and enjoy the rhythm and soul that it has to offer.

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