Black Keys ‘Turn Blue’ – Review

29 May

The Black Keys are cowards. Over the past month they’ve attacked a clearly troubled teenager (Justin Bieber), an American hero (Jack White) and a dead man (Michael Jackson). These attacks were angry, judgmental and puzzling. Noel and Liam Gallagher they aint. It left me wondering why the nasty duo don’t pick on people their own size. The simple answer, based on new album ‘Turn Blue’, is that they simply don’t have the guts because they haven’t got the songs. They have trouble talking the talk and on this evidence they’re not close to walking the walk – in fact they aren’t even fit to lick Jack White’s desert boots.

‘Turn Blue’ is a hilariously inept, monolithic record beamed straight from a distant, unfriendly age where guitars, drums and organs were deemed to be the only authentic instruments and women were called things like ‘Darlin’. It’s a ‘ROCK’ album in the sense that it sounds hard, uncompromising and grey – like a rock. It’s riddled with awkward end rhymes and archaic phrasing (“why you always wanna love the ones who hurt yah?”) set to hollow riffs and snoozy rhythms. It’s obstinately their ‘heart and soul’ record, yet there is no heart and little soul. Dan Auerbach tries to show a sensitive side yet comes over as out of touch and emotionally unsophisticated. His summary of his sorry love life? “Nobody want to protect yah / They only want to forget yah.”

Black Keys have been slugging it out for over a decade and their best work came when they were a modest support band living in the shadows. They got pushed in to the limelight because of a lack of other options – by 2010 Black Keys were one of the few acts making accessible riff rock, and so, Suddenly, and without much rhyme or reason, the powers that be decided they would become massive. 2011’s ‘El Camino’ was their poppiest record yet, and the most fun, but it still left me feeling a bit cold. ‘El Camino’, like their previous albums, was all stone carved riffs and no heart. I reasoned that if Black Keys were going to earn their plaudits they would need to insert some real, hard earned emotion in to their act.

But embracing emotion shouldn’t mean ditching fun altogether – especially when your entire sound and image until this point is based around ‘fun.’ ‘Turn Blue’ chronicles singer Dan Auerbach’s “messy divorce” (which divorce isn’t messy?) and when he wrote it he was clearly still in the drunk ‘woe is me’ phase of the break-up. Like Coldplay, Black Keys have followed their most upbeat album with their saddest. Unlike Coldplay, that’s all Black Keys have made; a sad, sad, sad album. It’s all build up and no release. All tears and no joy. All negativity and no optimism. It’s a sad, sad, sad album. Which is a real bummer.

As on ‘El Camino’, the record is produced by Danger Mouse, and it’s no better for it. As on the Broken Bells album earlier this year (Danger Mouse is a member of that group) ‘Turn Blue’ has a claustrophobic sound. Cinematic strings circle the other instruments, keeping them penned in to a ring. The bass is notable in the mix but sounds muddy and distracting. The swirling, almost psychedelic sound is the sonic equivalent of car sickness. Any semblance of dynamism, particularly with the riffs, gets lost in the dizziness. ’10 Lovers’ stands out from the crowd – the drums have a bit of bite and the synth rises to the surface and moves away from the sludge. Here they sound closer to former support act Arctic Monkeys on last Year’s triumphant ‘A.M’. It’s a shame more songs don’t have the same energy and focus.

‘Turn Blue’ is simply too plodding, too lethargic and too moody to be enjoyable. It doesn’t surprise me when I read that the band deliberately tried not to write singles. If that was their aim then they succeeded – there is nothing here that comes close to matching ‘Gold on the Ceiling’ or ‘Lonely Boy.’ In most countries Michael Jackson, half a decade dead and buried, beat Black Keys to the number one spot and that also doesn’t surprise me. ‘Turn Blue’ rather than MJ’s ‘Xscape’ is the album that sounds like it was made from beyond the grave. Jack White and Justin Bieber shouldn’t worry either – Black Keys have well and truly lost this battle and they better #belieb that.



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