The Black Keys’ eighth studio album, Turn Blue, opens with the six-minute “Weight of Love,” a spiral staircase of psychedelia that slowly crescendos into outer space. Dark blasts of tremolo, hazy washes of synth, a sauntering riff reminiscent of mid-period Pink Floyd—it’s a far cry from their scuzzy blues-rock roots. When the duo (singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach, drummer Patrick Carney) first teased their new LP as a “headphones album,” this bold, unexpected epic must’ve been fresh on their minds.
According to the generic rulebook of rock, this is the appropriate time for a reinvention. After a slow-burning decade, the band’s commercial trajectory came to a head with 2011’s El Camino—a propulsive, hooky collaboration with producer-in-demand Danger Mouse that solidified their arena-rock credentials even as it polished their pop appeal. Overall, Turn Blue is a darker, less linear album—a logical curveball following that Grammy-winning LP’s eager-to-please charm. Throughout, Auerbach looks inward, reflecting on his recent divorce with vague references to love-gone-wrong (“Hearts began to rust / the diamond turned to dust,” he sings on the forlorn acoustic ballad “Bullet in the Brain”) that enforce the black-hole mood of the LP’s minor-key grooves.
But on the whole, Turn Blue isn’t quite the experimental detour hinted at with “Weight of Love.” While the mix itself does reveal its subtleties on headphones (check the booming, distorted tom-toms that open “It’s Up to You Now,” the rippling organ and hard-panned overdubs on “Waiting on Words”), most of these songs are sculpted for alt-rock radio, built on strong choruses as much as atmosphere. Danger Mouse returns as producer (and occasional keyboardist), and his unmistakable thumbprint is stamped on every track—from the melancholy chord progressions to the muted bass tones to the way Carney’s once reckless drums now thump with added low-end.
This production partnership has certainly enhanced the duo’s sense of groove and sharpened their pop sensibilities: “Fever” is the clear knockout single, built on a chanted chorus and a distorted, three-note organ hook impossible to pry from your brain. But where the Danger Mouse aesthetic once sounded fresh (say, around the time of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”), it now approaches formula: Tracks like “In Time” are pleasantly anonymous—if you close your eyes, it’s easy to imagine Danger Mouse’s Broken Bells bandmate James Mercer sliding into that same falsetto croon. The most thrilling moments on Turn Blue are those that live up to the weirder billing: the simmering “In Our Prime” peaks with a sublime, double-tracked wah-wah guitar solo; “It’s Up to You Now” explodes from a tom-tom heavy groove to a swampy psychedelia.
Turn Blue concludes with “Gotta Get Away,” a rowdy, gospel-tinged Southern rocker—and a rare beam of light within the album’s dark sprawl. And as good as they are stepping into that spotlight, it’s hard not to wish they’d plumb the darkness even further.