Review: The Black Keys – Turn Blue

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The Black Keys‘ latest album Turn Blue is better when it’s louder. It has a helping of hazy rock that fills out a good chunk of the disc, but the songs that I remembered best were the ones that felt had a bit more spirit to them, and more of a lyrical drive. Despite competent guitar work, vocals, or beats, I often could flag a song I liked based on how much momentum was behind the song, or how well the lyrics served the whole.

As far as lyrics, the mellower tracks like ‘Fever’ and ‘10 Lovers’ rely too much on overly pat lyrical refrains, wearing themselves out too quickly (even if I liked what the quirky ‘Fever’ was trying to do). The single ‘Turn Blue’ is guilty of this too, though its pensive electric guitar harmony and interim lyrics part-way make up for this.

This isn’t a rag on simple lyrics, though: compared to the ‘Turn Blue’, ‘Bullet in the Brain’ is also built around an accessible, tidy lyrical refrain, but it’s catchier and the song has much more verve; I think ‘Bullet’ might have made the better single of the two. And the heavy groove of It’s ‘Up to You Now’ is actually served by its repetition, as if the singer’s trying to hammer the lesson home (and there’s a grindy mid-song instrumental break that boosts it even more).

Beyond the electric guitar, organ, and other instrumental features, the vocals are largely unvaried, though a few of the tracks try something a bit different. The higher-register lead in ‘Waiting on Words’, or the ornamentation and ethereal backing of ‘Year in Review’ are worth noting for that reason, though neither track left a strong impression with me otherwise.

Where the album mostly stood out were in its bookending tracks: The opener ‘Weight of Love’, with its haunted echo, organ, xylophonic tones, Western twang, and deep guitar, has a great build-up (its harmony reflected later in ‘Bullet in the Brain’, and its opening passages remind me a bit of Pink Floyd)– though the song is actually brought down a bit whenever the lyrics step on stage, it feels just a little epic, like a lead track should; the second track ‘In Time’ has some great bass percussive bounce, mixing sinister and quirk into a head-bobbing groove; the penultimate ‘In Our Prime’ is (as would any song talking about one’s prime) a lament, its lyrics easily my favorite on the whole disc, a shot in the arm compared to all the stuff before, backed by some fittingly cynical instrumentals: “Every now and then I see a face from way-back-when and I explode / Friends no longer aid me, only bullshit-serenade me like it’s gold / How that gets old”; and ‘Gotta Get Away’ is a straight-up homage to classic 70’s rock, almost evoking Steve Miller, its light lyrics feeling almost as fresh as ‘In Our Prime’ (only… the poor people of Kalamazoo. Please, lyricists, if you have an “oo” sound that needs a rhyme, give them a break).

Turn Blue takes you plenty of different places, but it’s absolutely clear what tracks are trying hardest to earn your love. Many rolled past me like low-lying, languid clouds, so I was grateful for the occasional boulder. This is rock, after all.

Words: Strange Bundle

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