The backlash, it seems, is officially underway. While plenty of the more venerable publications have predictably lined up with dutiful raves, befitting the Akron duo’s new status as the last great hope of rock ‘n’ roll in a Miley Cyrus pop flare universe, there have also been equally expected kneejerk naysaying, led by a scalding from Pitchfork severe enough to prompt drummer Patrick Carney to sarcastically reference it during an appearance on The Colbert Report. The truth between these markedly different reactions, as it so often does, lies somewhere in between.
Turn Blue is unmistakably a Black Keys record. Their by now well-established formula (this is their eighth album) of lean, bluesy rock and fiercely direct lyrics is solidly in place, even if the occasional tendency towards a slightly more languid, meandering path through a song (as on nearly seven-minute-long album opener “Weight of Love”) can sometimes make it seem like they pressed a glob of Silly Putty onto the track to see how far they could stretch the resulting copy. In general, there’s an unhurried soulfulness to the material, as if they’re waiting for what they’ve created to slowly evolve into a modern version of an Otis Redding record. Many of the songs (such as the title cut) are peppered with tender, intriguing little studio flourishes by producer and co-writer Danger Mouse, who’s by now so infused into the creative process four albums into his collaboration with the band that he may as well be considered a third member. This proves fascinating added without ever compromising the spirit of the music.
If the whole endeavor isn’t quite as arresting as Brothers or El Camino, it still has plenty of songs that are clearly destined to be part of the Black Keys stable of modern standards (the single “Fever” and the nicely murky “It’s Up to You Now” chief among them). The tracks that shift the musical narrative a touch would be plenty welcome if they weren’t also a little lacking. Even with Dan Auerbach’s distinctive pining, rough-hewn vocals bringing the song into proper Black Keys territory, “Year in Review” sounds weirdly like Duran Duran trying on a juke joint vibe. “Waiting on Words” is a real wet tissue of a song, with quasi-falsetto singing and overly tentative music. It seems they’re trying for a version of tenderness, but coming up with something that tilts more towards the eager phoniness of a current pop hit.
Turn Blue may simply represent the Black Keys settling into a new middle ground of sound dependability, hardly unheard of for a band that’s approaching fifteen years again and has now achieved a level of success that invariably strips away the worry and therefore the urgency from the creative process. They’re making records like a couple of guys who flatly know how to make records. Experimentation isn’t really a necessity to grab the attention to the audience. Maybe for the first time, Auerbach and Carney (and Danger Mouse) made a Black Keys album with some level of certainty that people were going to buy it. Whether that blunted some of the experimentation, leading to digressions that feel like noodling instead of exciting new avenues of possibility, is open for debate, I suppose. Even if that’s the case, enough of the band’s skill at locked-in garagey, blues rock songs is in evidence to keep Turn Blue on the right side of the worthiness line.