The Black Keys: Turn Blue review – polished and commercial, but never craven or compromised

Are the Black Keys still White Stripes clones? Their supremely confident eighth album suggests a band at the peak of their powers now occupying their own orbit

Reading Jack White's angry, mid-divorce email to his estranged wife Karen Elson was not a hugely edifying experience – pruriently earwigging other people's personal misery seldom is – but the leaked document at least contained one illuminating fact. Among his panoply of complaints, White seemed particularly upset that Elson was planning to send their children to a school attended by the daughter of Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, or as White referred to him, "that asshole". After protesting about having to sit next to Auerbach on a "kid's chair" – let the parent who's never complained about enduring a nativity play with their buttocks painfully arranged on a seat designed for a five-year-old cast the first stone – White bemoaned "other people trying to lump us in together". His complaint: "He gets another free reign [sic] to follow me around and copy me and push himself into my world."

Auerbach subsequently claimed he'd only met White once, "in passing", so the enmity was presumably professional. Plenty of bands emerged in the White Stripes' wake. Not all of them were wilfully formed in their image – some existed before White started pretending his ex-wife was his sister – but all were buoyed by the White Stripes' success, and the increased public appetite for raw, garage blues-rock. Uniquely among their ranks, however, the Black Keys look like giving the White Stripes a run for their money. Their last two albums went platinum and won seven Grammys between them. They've been fast-tracked into the rarefied world of the rock aristocracy – jamming with the Rolling Stones, hanging out with Robert Plant – and become musically influential, drafted in to produce Dr John and Lana del Rey, their sound audibly shaping the Arctic Monkeys' AM.

White would doubtless protest that this is all just evidence that nature abhors a vacuum, that the Black Keys' success amounts to a band filling the void created when the White Stripes split: their first mainstream chart album, Attack and Release, came out in 2008, the year after the White Stripes' swansong, Icky Thump. Such things definitely happen in rock music, but even someone starting their investigation into the Black Keys' oeuvre with their eighth album could work out, within minutes of Turn Blue kicking into life, that it is a hopeless oversimplification to call them copyists. It starts with Weight of Love, a vast, expansive song that shifts its shape three times in its opening minute or so alone. Initially, its  drifting electronics, languidly rumbling drums and guitar solo conjure up something of the ambience of Pink Floyd's Breathe: the drum pattern tightens up, a bassline comes to the fore and, for a moment, it sounds unexpectedly like something off Air's first album, before Auerbach's voice arrives – careworn, slightly distorted, backed by a female chorus, brooding about failed romance – and suddenly roots the song in a far earthier country-soul tradition. It spends seven minutes gliding between its apparently polarised influences with an effortless grace – that the song itself is fantastic and the protracted guitar solos genuinely sound like they're expressing the same tormented emotions as the lyrics helps – turning an unlikely selection of source materials into something entirely its authors' own.

The Weight of Love also sounds suspiciously like a band who know they may be at the peak of their powers, and the same, hugely beguiling sense of well-placed confidence runs through all of Turn Blue. The garage-blues scene from which they sprang was self-consciously limiting – a certain fundamentalism was the point – but, aided by their long-term producer and co-songwriter Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton, Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have matured into a band capable of drawing all kinds of music into their own orbit: Fever's hook lies somewhere between 80s synth-pop and MGMT's Kids; In Our Prime bears the mark of McCartneyesque soft psych; there's a fantastic moment about 90 seconds into Bullet in the Brain where the track shifts gear from lovelorn country-rock lament to motorik Krautrock pulse.

For all its musical diversity, Turn Blue never sounds incoherent. That's partly because the songs are drawn together by the album's ongoing lyrical preoccupations: perhaps understandably, given that it was written in the wake of Auerbach's messy divorce, there are enough recriminatory warnings about the vagaries of romance here to last a lifetime. But it's mostly because Turn Blue never stops sounding like the Black Keys. However the songs are embellished, however radio-friendly the choruses or stadium-sized the dynamics, the tight-knit relationship between Auerbach's guitar and Carney's breakbeat-heavy drumming is always at their centre. The result is polished and commercial, without feeling craven or compromised, an impressive stunt to pull off.

It's easy to feel puzzled by the Black Keys' advance to arena-filling status: flashier, more media-savvy bands have attracted more headlines over the years, so Auerbach and Carney's slow, gradual ascent can make you think of Peter Cook's line about David Frost rising without trace, compounded by the fact that the duo have a tendency to feign a degree of incomprehension about their success in interviews. For anyone still wondering, Turn Blue provides the answers: on the evidence presented here, Jack White looks set to be haunted by "that asshole" for the foreseeable future.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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