Review: The Black Keys are turning blue

Tom Jenkinson 21 May 2014

Since their debut in 2002, The Black Keys have forged a name for themselves with their abrasive DIY blues. Their collaboration with Brian Burton on Brothers, however, gave them a refined new sound that enticed the masses. Hardcore fans were apprehensive about what the cabinet-full of Grammy’s Tighten Up brought would mean for the duo, but their 2011 effort, El Camino, embraced the new found fame: they weaponised the raw simplicity of their earlier work by adding the pop sensibilities of Burton’s production and propelled themselves all the way to the bank.

Turn Blue was never meant to be a follow up, but it still lingers in the shadow of that achievement. Carney and Auerbach return to the moody psychedelia of Attack & Release armed once more with Burton’s studio wizardry. Whilst being a deliberately slow burner, it never fully ignites. In an attempt to distance themselves from racy pop hooks, Burton’s influence give the music a sex appeal akin to his other project, Broken Bells. In doing so though, the Black Keys forsake the grit that once defined them. 

There are moments of brilliance, like the huge drop and quick switch of pace in Its Up To You Now, or the spooky (and long awaited) keyboard sections of Fever and 10 Lovers; but in other tracks they come across as tempered versions of themselves. Thankfully final track Gotta Get Away is a rock and roll number begging to get middle aged men on their feet, showing they haven’t stopped having fun just yet.

Like any release from a band that have reached stadium-sized success, Turn Blue was always going to shimmer with high production values. Sadly, the saintly backup vocals that set El Camino apart feel overused whilst there are times when ambient sound or synth notes seem added for their own sake. Their recent struggles with divorce and fame suggested a more somber tone was due. The problem is that whilst the heartache that went into the album that remains evident lyrically, it is Burton’s touch that is felt most heavily.

Scarily this album doesn’t find you wondering what might have been. Instead it has you questioning whether the Black Keys have anywhere left to go with Burton as honorary third member. His atmospheric additions overshadow the pain and hurt that inspired this effort. 

Turn Blue is still a hugely listenable album, written and recorded by incredibly talented musicians; it’s just that the spit and sawdust ferocity that fuelled their ascent has gone… and production values can never make up for it.