I have a secret to tell you, a little insider knowledge – it will blow you away. No one else wants you to know, or if they do, they’re doing their darnedest to be as subtle as possible, so subtle that you don’t even notice. I have dug beneath the journalistic conspiracy, broken through intellectual barriers. I would tell you it came to me in a dream, a midnight vision, of how things really are, but that would be doing myself a horrendous injustice, for I discovered this through hard work, dogged determination, well researched analysis and unprecedented personal insight, all in my waking hours. Music labels, music magazines, music websites, music blogs, musicians, the world over – Do. Not. Want. You. To. Know. Here it comes, the big reveal: when a band becomes gigantic and well known and popular and sells millions of records and concert tickets and everyone knows who they are, they do NOT automatically become rubbish.
They do not.
An aggrieved member of the music press.
Commercialism is the nastiest, grimiest of words in modern music. When a band hits the big time and becomes commercial (definition: making, or intending to make, a profit), their credibility will take the almightiest of blows. As someone who despises the disgusting corporate sensibilities of popular music and how it is twisted and used, and as someone who is identified, finger-pointed, as a person of that opinion (popularly called a hipster, or pretentious, or unwilling to accept music as subjective and taste orientated), I feel like it is my duty to finally stand up and make my feelings clear – make the way it actually is clear.
When a talented band or artist transcend the divide between “alternative” music and that of the mainstream, it does not spell disaster. Sometimes it works – Future Islands produced a slab of polished Pop that has cemented their reputation rather than damage it. The fact is though, Future Islands will only ever achieve limited success within that mainstream pocket. Sometimes it really doesn’t work – Kings of Leon followed up Only by the Night, the album that bridged the gap, with Come Around Sundown, an album that crashed and burned because it too fully embraced arena ready, inoffensive, uninteresting rock music.
However, the most infuriating situation is when a band follows up their commercial breakthrough with something different and weird, but are then automatically criticized just because of their very existence now as a band who is known and recognised by that one person you know who listens to whatever is on Capital FM or the iTunes chart, or only listens to music when they’re in a club or have the radio on when they’re driving. You know, the person you think who has that one thing worse than having bad taste in music: no taste.
Enter The Black Keys and their new album (their eighth overall), Turn Blue. Before I actually get to the psychedelic sludge-fest of the record itself, it is important to know how Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney led up to Turn Blue, and also where I stand in writing this review/ranty ramble to the reactionary and fickle music press. Usually I hasten to avoid reviews by other writers and publications so as not to cloud my judgement of a record. In this scenario, not only have I gone against that, but it doesn’t even matter. I’m going very much against the grain by saying that I enjoyed Turn Blue immensely. The problem is that much of the critical reaction surrounding the album follows the mathematical equation of: respected band + mass popularity = not worth our time.
The problem is that a lot of the reaction had been decided before the record even came into existence. The problem is it’s mainly the usual suspects. I won’t name any names. But I’m mainly talking about the one that used to be good but doesn’t have my (anyone’s?) respect anymore, and the one with the overly flowery language and hyper critical high standards. You see these publications refuse to believe that a band that has gone from being a modest Blues Rock duo to worldwide hitmakers could ever follow up their barnstorming commercial breakthrough with anything other than a record that totally panders to the new audience they’ve gained, one that is ready to part with their money as soon as you give them what they want – more of the same.
Anyone who has two ears and listened to even the first three songs on El Camino knows that this simply isn’t the case if they put on Turn Blue. The record is bookended by two of the most atypical Black Keys track in their canon. First, a near seven minute, winding odyssey of blues psychedelia introduced by eerie spaghetti western Theremin whistling and acoustic guitar that spirals like the hypnotising whirlpool of the cover art into a crowd of battling guitar solos, and the record finishes with the simplest and most satisfying song – the Eagles, Tom Petty and Creedence indebted “Gotta Get Away“.
The Black Keys have built a reputation for translating Leadbelly and Muddy Waters style blues to a modern canvas, and this brash 70s rock is a departure, but one that suits them well. Everything in between is a little more down tempo, a little more contemplative. It is hazy and fuzzy on the title track; the guitar on “It’s Up To You Now” is muddy, heavy, distorted, stomping dinosaur-like; “Bullet In The Brain” straddles the pitch corrected, spaced out psychedelics of the likes of Tame Impala. This is all a far cry from the clean and immediate riffage of El Camino’s “Gold On The Ceiling” or “Run Right Back“. The only thing that comes close to a commercial hook, something to hum to, is the organ on “Fever“, and even that disintegrates at the end of the track into something more melancholy.
I’m not sure in what world creating a more down tempo, more atmospheric grower of a record makes you a sell-out, giving your soul over to drivetime radio. Far be it for me to criticize criticisms, but much of the backlash over aspects of the record – lyrics, production – are actually what make Turn Blue so impressive. In an alternate dimension where The Black Keys are still playing dimly lit dancehalls rather than flashy arenas, are festival undercard highlights rather than outright headliners and have someone less iconic and pioneering than St. Vincent supporting them on tour, critics would love this record.
It is certainly their most coherent record thematically – lyrics throughout refer to Auerbach’s divorce struggles. For a band where relatively mundane subjects about your bluesy troubles have been the least interesting thing about them, Turn Blue represents pretty powerful poetry. And yet, this is dubbed lazy, derivative and even misogynistic, by the same publications that gush plaudits over countless rap records containing uncensored misogyny in every verse. It’s as if critics are looking for bad things that aren’t there.
The truth is Turn Blue has all the charm and depth of Brothers but without being too protracted, languid and bloated. It is perhaps the best example of the Akron natives’ collaboration with producer Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, since the inception of that relationship, the off kilter flourishes – such as the bizarre, saliva sucking drone warp throughout “Turn Blue” – mean he is present but not overbearing. The songs open themselves up gradually rather than shove their wares in your face. In a society where the drop, the riff, the bang, is impatiently craved, I do not see how this record represents anything other than a reaction to their commercial success rather than a submission to it. And yet it is this that they have been criticized for!
The question is, why is it that critics turn against successful bands even when they do not sacrifice quality at the drop of a hat just because they’re popular? Sadly, I find the philosophical aspect of that question unanswerable from a general musical viewpoint. With The Black Keys, there is something extra that makes the need to criticize a little more urgent, that explains why Turn Blue has been surprisingly poorly received. That old time style, the genre they play so well, is a hurdle they’ve had to overcome unto itself. They were just so good, likeable and humble, that it took them actually breaking out of the underground for it to rise up to the teeth of music journalists and spew out.
Music critics are afraid of nostalgia and unoriginality. The Black Keys are nostalgic and, to an extent, unoriginal; but they are fun, and do the Blues Rock thing so well. People are afraid now of backward thinking music, even though some great music has come from dwelling in the past: “Nostalgia is a product of dissatisfaction and rage. It’s a settling of grievances between the present and the past”. It seems that unless you create something entirely unheard before (an arguable impossibility), that this mind set envelopes any response to music influenced and inspired by tradition and history.
The Black Keys have released eight albums, and of all the early millennium rock bands that appeared with them, they are the last men standing. They have worked extremely hard; they are the simple guys with extraordinary talent that came good. With Turn Blue, the greatest compliment they could receive is to have the music press who so adored them, turn blue on them. For me, Turn Blue is a layered and moody work that has Dan and Pat just shake up their rhythm enough to sound a little unlike themselves.
I, for one, begrudge them not an ounce of their deserved success. The critical reaction to Turn Blue is indicative of the alternative music press’ attitude towards commercialism more than it is indicative of The Black Keys’ attitude towards commercialism. Turn Blue could be a perfect masterpiece and it’d still get 6/10 in the NME. When The Black Keys come on, it doesn’t matter to me how many tickets they sold for their most recent show. Instead I just give myself over to their nostalgia and drown in their greasy rock.
Purchase: The Black Keys – Turn Blue (iTunes)
Words by Tony Inglis