The Black Keys duo likes to have fun, and they are not always cryptic. When explaining the title of their (trippy, expansive and excellent) eighth album, they offered multiple choices as to what Turn Blue might refer to, mentioning as possibilities suffocation, sadness, numbness from extreme cold and a Cleveland late-night horror-movie TV host from the 1960s named Ghoulardi – or all of the above. Ghoulardi knew about fear and the worried mind – the blues by any other name, speaking of suffocation, sadness and numbness. This isn’t rocket science. This is Robert Johnson and Love in Vain; this is B.B. King and The Thrill is Gone.
What this isn’t is Sweet Home Chicago.
The album begins with an acoustic strum and a lonesome psychedelic air familiar to those hip to the dark side of Pink Floyd. A purple-coloured guitar solo howls (Eddie Hazel and Maggot Brain-Funkadelic style), before the track (Weight of Love) slips into a slow-burning groove. “I used to think darling you’d never do nothing, but you were always up to something, always out running,” Dan Auerbach sings. “I gotta think those days are coming to get you.”
Last year, Auerbach split from his wife. Apparently it was something other than a conscious uncoupling. The suffocation, the numbness, the sadness, even the Ghoulardi, is released during a lengthier guitar expression from Auerbach, who normally doesn’t step out so boldly. Brilliant, tortured stuff from him.
On the following In Time, he uses a silky falsetto on a catchy rumble of flatulent brass and cinematic rock. “Livin’ in chains, the heart’s rearranged,” he croons, “You gotta lure it back, all of the time.” It’s about the question: What comes next?
The single Fever you should have heard by now, and if you haven’t you really should. A bass line drives its insistence and bop; it refers to a high-temperature condition and the good and bad delirium it can bring. It’s the Peggy Lee disease.
You’ll hear a lot of talk about how much different Turn Blue is from the Keys’ earlier, rawer works (beginning with 2002’s The Big Come Up). Sure, Turn Blue co-producer Danger Mouse (who also assisted on 2011’s Grammy-winning El Camino) has helped develop a more textured, widescreen and melodic approach, but Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney are still coming from the same soulful places – it’s just a little more stretched out and fluid now. I’ve dug pretty much everything they’ve done so far, but Turn Blue is the first Black Keys album that makes me want to push Repeat Play.
If we don’t count the closing track Gotta Get Away – which we shouldn’t; it’s a pedestrian bar rocker – Turn Blue ends with In Our Prime. It has the line “the house it burned, but nothing there was mine,” which refers to a fire which Auerbach alleged was set by his estranged wife.
An organ gurgles, Auerbach sings about a love down the drain and the song fades out with another deft, fuzzy guitar solo. He is numb and cold. His house has burned down, but the rest of us are warm from the ashes. These are the blues.