The Black Keys’ garage-blues origins were self-consciously provincial, seeking an authenticity bordering on fundamentalism. Their last two albums drew in more distant and disparate musical sources, and, with a little help from producer and collaborator Brian Burton, a.k.a. Danger Mouse, Turn Blue achieves a fully mature, cosmopolitan polish. Little chance remains of the Black Keys being pegged as a White Stripes cover band.
The sense of evolving song structures, dynamics, and texture starts immediately with “Weight of Love,” an expansive track that begins in the electronic territory of a Broken Bells track and ends with a protracted guitar solo that buzzes like Neil Young. In between, singer Dan Auerbach moans familiar tropes about the consequences of romantic failure overtop a female chorus: “Just go ahead and kill me.” The song is ambitious but not eager, content to drift in swelling post-Pink Floyd ambience in between its moments of hot country blues. It’s a microcosm of the kind of diversity that pervades Turn Blue. “Fever,” a track with a Motown pulse as hypnotic as the album’s magenta and blue spiral cover, employs a vintage organ circa 1960s; “In Our Prime” pulls off some baggy British psychedelia; and the molasses-slow rhythms of “In Time” owe a clear debt to funk, and it’s one that pays dividends.
For all the album’s kaleidoscopic sampling, including a literal sample pulled from a Nico Fidenco song for “Year in Review,” the surfeit of beautiful melodies and musical invention is its own. Auerbach, in particular, restlessly expands his repertoire—which, paradoxically, results in turning down his guitar and taking the edge off his typically machete-sharp vocal delivery, favoring instead a fragile falsetto that results in hooky melodies that take priority over the frequently rudimentary lyrics. “Gotta Get Away,” for example, is among the dumbest songs the Keys’ have ever released (“I went from San Berdoo to Kalamazoo/Just to get away from you”), though the throwback to Creedence Clearwater Revival-style rock n’ roll, complete with cowbell, does add some levity to the melancholic tinge of the rest of the album—a melancholy too easily attributed, perhaps, to Auerbach’s recent divorce. When his guitar does burn through Danger Mouse’s lovely smoke and mirrors, it happens with laser precision. There’s still a two-man garage band in there, but Auerbach and Patrick Carney are currently catering to earbuds rather than stadiums.