Turn Blue, the Black Keys‘ eighth studio album, opens with seven minutes of slow burn and eccentric fury. “Weight of Love” is the sort of uproar most bands would save for a big finish. But the Keys – singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney – and their co-producer Brian Burton, a.k.a. Danger Mouse, show their nerve upfront in a mounting tension of acoustic guitar and painted-desert ambience, cut open by Auerbach’s machete-treble twang and battered by Carney’s unhurried John Bonham-like rolls. When Auerbach finally gets to the chorus, he sings it as high-pitched warning (“Don’t give yourself away/To the weight of love”), lined with plenty of gospel-sisters heat.
In one sense, “Weight of Love” is the Keys’ return to basics: a heavy blues. In every other way, that turmoil is a giant step into the best, most consistently gripping album the Keys have ever made. And that includes their 2010 smash, Brothers.
That LP’s crunchy mix of Sixties soul and Midwest-garage glam was a rightful breakthrough. Turn Blue is a genuine turning point – into a decisively original rock, with a deeper shade of blues. You still get the minimalist vigor of the Keys’ first records a decade ago. But this is more brazen severity, richer and forward in its hip-hop allusions, super-size-rock dynamics, pictorial studio flourishes and offbeat commercial savvy. With its seething close-up bass runs and deathwatch vocal chorus, “In Time” is an aggressive update of Sly Stone‘s paranoia in There’s a Riot Goin’ On with a spaghetti-Western splash of Ennio Morricone. “Fever” is a bizarre, knockout union of bar-band grease and Euro-disco concision – Kraftwerk in gas-station overalls. The Keys have been working up to this since their first LP with Burton, 2008’s Attack & Release. Turn Blue sounds like arrival.
Burton is practically a bandmate here, playing keyboards and co-writing all 11 songs (and co-producing all but two). He is also an expert magnifier and coloring agent, the likely hand behind the croaking electronics in “Turn Blue” and the fattened thwack in “Year in Review.” But the Keys are still a two-man band. Their strict, primary force binds and propels the extra textures as well as Auerbach’s flinty verdicts on love always going wrong. “I let you use my gifts/To back those lyin’ lips,” he snaps in “Bullet in the Brain,” a gnashing rage in lavish reverb. “In Our Prime” has less echo but more dirty guitar, curdled organ and a soul interlude with an orchestral hint of keyboards. “I see a face from way back when/And I explode,” Auerbach sings before he and Carney blow up at the end. It’s not Muddy Waters‘ lingo. It’s still blues.
“Gotta Get Away” is an unexpected finish: straight-arrow rock with a hot chorus, the way the Clash‘s “Train in Vain” was a hit-single exclamation point on London Calling. Turn Blue is as apocalyptic, in its way, as that Clash epic: loaded with risk, distress and payoff. But when Auerbach sings, “Blacktop, I can’t stop,” at the end, over Carney’s open-road stride, they sound like a band already on to the next crossroads.