For lovers of pop music, advance word about the new Black Keys album was a bit alarming. Guitarist-vocalist Dan Auerbach, drummer Patrick Carney and returning co-conspirator/co-producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton said in recent interviews that they were consciously steering themselves away from producing singles. Considering the whiz-bang accessibility (and multiple Grammy wins) of the band’s last album, 2011’s “El Camino,” this approach seemed needlessly contrary. But it all makes sense now that “Turn Blue” is here. No, the Black Keys’ eighth long player isn’t loaded with obvious hits, and that’s more than okay — because this is a brave, varied and engaging collection of songs.
The nearly seven-minute opening track, “Weight of Love,” suggests the band is returning to the groggy psychedelica it first explored on 2008’s “Attack & Release” (and that can also be heard on Ray LaMontagne’s recent “Supernova,” which Auerbach produced). With three guitar solos, each one more epic and indulgent than the last, there’s more than a touch of Pink Floyd in the air — this and one later track, “Bullet in the Brain,” sometimes recall “Breathe” on “Dark Side of the Moon.”
But the mood shifts on the dancefloor-friendly “In Time,” and it keeps on shifting from there. The falsetto vocal, rippling rhythm-guitar figures and orchestral punctuations of the title track summon the spirit of Curtis Mayfield, while its lyrics allude to his 1970 soul perennial “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go.” First single “Fever” gives an EDM-style synth hook what sounds like a Farfisa organ for mod vintage appeal. The mellotron-enhanced middle section of “In Our Prime” could have come off an Electric Light Orchestra album.
All these songs demonstrate that a lack of clear-cut radio fodder does not equal a lack of catchiness – especially toward the end of the album, where some of the best cuts reside. On “10 Lovers,” another high, plaintive soul melody – that Auerbach falsetto gets a lot of mileage – rides an itchy funk beat that’s tough to shake. And the closing track, “Gotta Get Away,” is a welcome shot of classic rock that finds the singer channeling John Fogerty in his swamp-country prime. Its chorus (“I went from San Berdoo to Kalamazoo just to get away from you”) is the most immediate earworm here.
Even so, the prevailing atmosphere of “Turn Blue” is downbeat and spooky. “El Camino”‘s success, and the resulting inflation of expectations, seems to have had a depressive effect on Auerbach and Carney. The heavy reverb haze of Danger Mouse’s production matches the general melancholy of the lyrics, which often seem to allude to Auerbach’s recent divorce: “Why you always wanna love the ones who hurt you/Then break down when they go and desert you?” he sings on “Year in Review.”
Those who relish the pounding, fuzzed-out blues-rock riffs that used to be this band’s stock in trade may be disappointed. Only one song, “It’s Up to You Now,” shows the aggression commonplace on early albums like “Thickfreakness” and “Rubber Factory.” Still, there’s something to be said for stylistic diversity, and The Black Keys say it well.