Heartbreak alchemised into gold. By Andrew Tanner.
TURN BLUE – THE BLACK KEYS (NONESUCH)
A long-time live favourite in this country, The Black Keys arrived this month as a serious chart act, with their latest album shooting straight to the No.1 spot on the ARIA album chart upon release. Given its lyrical themes, evidence yet again that heartbreak can be alchemised into gold.
Of course, the decade and a half partnership of singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney has long been on the up and up. The past few years have seen the duo grab a slew of Grammy awards, lauded production roles for artists like Lana Del Ray and Dr John, and even that most obvious signifier of arrival in the celeb-a-sphere – a very public Twitter spat with Justin Bieber (you can throw another with Jack White in there for extra cred). But the singular event that puts their latest work into true context is a deeper, more personal affair.
Turn Blue is the Akron duo’s eighth long player, and it’s one steeped in melancholy – the aftermath of singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach’s recent, and apparently messy divorce. Along with lyrical content replete with rusted hearts and diamonds turning to dust, what transpires in the grooves is a break from the band’s tried and tested musical template. This is a less formulaic, more textural set of Black Keys songs.
After 2011’s El Camino, fans might have expected more gut bucket blues stomp and riff heavy guitar boogie. Instead Turn Blue turns a stylistic corner into moodier territory. If its predecessor was rooted in 70’s hard rock the new album takes more than a few tips from the following decade – cue swooning falsetto vocals, tinkling keys and burbling synths, treated drum sounds and yes, even digital handclaps.
First single – and possibly the album’s most disposable track – ‘Fever’ features a jaunty synth hook, effected drums and samples aplenty. In another era it could well have been a hit for Soft Cell or Yazoo. Likewise ‘Year In Review’ adorns a 60’s Motown groove with alternately plucked and swooping string arpeggios, Supremes-style backing vocals and a torch ballad melody Human League would be proud of. All serve what may be the album’s most nakedly lovelorn lyric: ‘Why you always wanna love the ones who hurt you, then break down when they go and desert you?’
You’d hazard a guess that responsibility for the new sonic textures should be largely attributed to unofficial third member, producer Brian ‘Danger Mouse’ Burton.While the bedrock of garagey guitar and thumping drums remains, the layers of strings, samples and keys are more to the fore than on any other Black Keys album, emerging as featured parts rather than supporting ambience. The other audio star on Turn Blue is the bass – by turns funky, melodic or a subterranean force in the mix. Case in point is the G-funk bassline that propels ’10 Lovers,’ a song that with its world weary lyric (‘we might break instead of bend’) and cinematic sweep comes on like the perfect track for the next Bond blockbuster’s closing titles.
There are other influences at play here too. Album opener ‘The Weight Of Love’ is epic, expansive psychedelia that begins with gently strummed guitar and glockenspiel before opening out into a 6 minute 50 second desert rock workout featuring Hammond organ and soaring guitar throughout. The title track features jazzy chordal progressions, dubby bass and gently purring synthesisers as Auerbach’s throaty falsetto warns ‘I really don’t think you know there could be hell below’.
There’s even a whiff of Sgt Pepper’s era Fab Four in one of the album’s standouts ‘In Our Prime.’ Piano takes the lead, with Auerbach’s Harrison-like guitar lines snaking around, before a double time middle eight with a McCartney-worthy melody kicks in. It’s a track that poses interesting possibilities for a band prepared to depart their blues base to explore other styles.
Two tracks in particular will gladden the hearts of El Camino diehards. ‘It’s Up To You Now’ employs Carney’s overdriven Bo Diddley beat and super-fuzzed guitar and bass on a rhythm rave up that would have sat easily on that album, while closer ‘Gotta Get Away’ features an arena rock, fist pumping riff reminiscent of Springsteen’s ‘Glory Days.’ It’s part pastiche, part goofy dumb fun.
Early in the album’s production Auerbach and Carney stated they were after a ‘headphone record’ and a ‘more open, sprawling kind of album’. Turn Blue is all that in spades, full of insinuating melodies and multiple layers. It’s a grower, not an instant pop thrill. Even the title has a sly double entendre. While its obvious connotation is the descent into broken-hearted sorrow, the actual phrase was sourced from an obscure 60’s TV horror show host, Cleveland’s one and only Ghoulardi (look him up on Youtube). Along with ‘stay sick’ his favoured phrase ‘turn blue’ was a knowing hipster version of the more aggressive ‘fuck off and die’. Listen long enough and you’ll hear some of that bile and bite amongst Turn Blue’s soulful melancholy.