Turn Blue review – the Black Keys discover the art of noodling

The midwestern rockers' eighth album is more reflective than their last pile-driver – and a fine piece of work

Platinum-shiny, Grammy-snaffling, the Black Keys' last album, El Camino, effectively weaponised the duo's slinky blues rock. The Ohioan band had always been retro; they had long had tunes – at the very least, since Attack & Release (2008) poured more R&B oil into the Black Keys' garage blues engine. For El Camino, Dan Auerbach, Patrick Carney and longtime producer Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton reformulated the band's strengths into a series of muscular uppercuts – a punchiness that did not sacrifice their appeal to the hips. After their breakout album, Brothers (2010), El Camino made the Black Keys into proper rock stars, on a par with their Nashville neighbours Kings of Leon, and outpacing their antic rival Jack White. Key-in-chief Auerbach has also enjoyed a parallel career producing artists like Dr John and Bombino; his hands are on the desk of Lana Del Rey's long-awaited second album Ultraviolence.

Two years in the making, the Black Keys' eighth album is not another road-hogging pile-driver like El Camino. Patrick Carney's drums, sometimes delicate, sometimes carnivorous, go their own way, rather than the way of the metronome. Fever has an organ melody that you can't dislodge without queueing up in A&E, while In Time is a tune that feels like it has been around for ever, despite its preponderance of keyboards and an Auerbach falsetto that is actually, properly, seductive. So long a guitar 'n' drums outfit, the Black Keys now, finally, live up to the instrument in their name.

By and large, though, Turn Blue is less immediate than its predecessor, more sprawling and – according to the band – designed to be savoured in headphones. The cover art of Turn Blue features a spinning psychedelic visual, a clue that this record is headed towards inner space, rather than the rafters. The opening track, among the best, is Weight of Love. It clocks in at more than seven minutes, and travels from Zeppelin pastorale through some serious guitar-shop soloing, into a shimmering nugget of a love-gone-wrong song. This is no bad thing.

The title of the album doesn't refer to some hazy passage into the ultramarine spectrum, though. It's a reference to an obscure Cleveland TV show – the catchphrase of its anchor, Ghoulardi. It means: die – making this roundabout Black Keys record startlingly direct. Who should die? Well, just as El Camino was peaking, Dan Auerbach was getting divorced from the mother of his five-year-old, an ugly process that leaches into the words here (Bullet in the Brain). Lyrically, Auerbach has always been something of a star-crossed lover, but you feel his pain more here.

More widely, though, it might be the Black Keys' detractors that deserve to rot – Jack White loyalists, at a guess, or people who like to sneer at the Black Keys' relative lack of pretension. Ever since one shaman chanted more effective incantations than the witch doctor in the next cave, it has been de rigueur to berate the successful; the ascent of these midwesterners has been accompanied by apparent accusations of copying (by White in a leaked email, denied by Carney), over-licensing and shamelessly playing to the crowd.

The Black Keys are not doing that here, but pleasing themselves, in the increasingly audible company of Danger Mouse. Turn Blue is a rather fine record, hugely engaging on the audiophile level, and one that humanises Auerbach. But if you joined the Black Keys soul-rock party for the riffs, there's a chance you may not be prepared to stay for the noodles.

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Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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