Words of self-knowledge from Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys: "We made our mark when we were in our prime."
That lyric, delivered in a parched drawl on the blues-rock duo's new album, almost certainly refers to Auerbach's recent divorce, which seems to haunt "Turn Blue" like a ghost. But the singer-guitarist might as well be describing the trajectory of the group he shares with drummer Patrick Carney.
After sweating it out for years as a kind of underground knock-off of the White Stripes, the Black Keys finally broke into the mainstream with 2010's "Brothers" and its 2011 follow-up, "El Camino." Both records sold more than 1 million copies, a huge number for any rock band doing business this decade, while the latter earned a Grammy nomination (alongside White's "Blunderbuss") for album of the year.
The commercial success coincided with what felt like a creative apex, as "Brothers" and "El Camino" had sharper tunes and deeper grooves than any of the Black Keys' workmanlike early records. When Auerbach and Carney filled Staples Center for two nights in late 2012 — just like Madonna and Justin Bieber — you could feel the excited energy swirling around two musicians making their mark, as Auerbach puts it, in their prime.
The hard truth about the top, though, is that getting there often leaves only one direction to move. And a pronounced feeling of descent pervades "Turn Blue," the Black Keys' eighth studio disc and the fourth they've made with Danger Mouse, the shape-shifting producer who's become such a trusted collaborator that he's credited as a co-writer on all 11 songs here.
At least part of the comedown appears to be by design, an expression of Auerbach's grim thoughts regarding the breakup of his marriage. "Why you always wanna love the ones who hurt you / Then break down when they go and desert you?" he asks in "Year in Review," "It's so hard to let 'em go." Later, over the gloomy acoustic shuffle of "Bullet in the Brain," he sings of hearts beginning to rust and a diamond turning to dust.
These lovelorn vibes are presented with paradoxical care.
"In Time" has a ringing piano lick and woozy gospel-soul backing vocals, while Auerbach sings "Waiting on Words" in a delicate falsetto that's streaked with shades of Smokey Robinson. And with its funky bass line and whirring synth riff, the spacey "10 Lovers" could be a song by Danger Mouse's psych-pop band Broken Bells.
Yet given the well-imagined production work Auerbach's been doing lately outside the Black Keys — on strong records by Dr. John, Bombino and Lana Del Rey, among others — there's no reason to suspect that the singer wasn't sculpting the band's richly detailed sound here. Indeed, the album's seven-minute opener, "Weight of Love," summons a folk-noir atmosphere nearly as heady as that in Del Rey's great new single, "West Coast."
What works to provide an air of mystery with an artist like Del Rey, though, feels dangerously enervating on a Black Keys album, as those hazy guitars and slow-mo tempos drain away the crisp forward momentum heard on "Brothers" and especially "El Camino." Performing the album's lead single, "Fever," over the weekend on "Saturday Night Live," the band seemed even more listless, a candy-colored muscle car reduced to lazy Sunday-drive mode.
By all accounts a believer in rock's wide emotional bandwidth, Auerbach is, of course, entitled to explore lower-key energies. But heartbreak isn't necessarily low-key, is it? Throughout "Turn Blue" the singer uses words with dramatic power — "In the dead of the night, I start to lose control," he claims in the title track — yet sets them against arrangements that feel fussed-over, with all intensity smoothed out.
Compare a song like "In Our Prime" to "Lazaretto," the freaky first sampling from Jack White's upcoming album — which, by the way, promises to detail White's own unhappy divorce — and the former puts up no fight; it hardly convinces you that Auerbach ever lost control.
"Turn Blue" does offer one short blast of the Black Keys' old excitement, right at the end of the album, in "Gotta Get Away," a lovably trashy glam jam about outrunning one's troubles. "I went from San Berdoo to Kalamazoo just to get away from you," Auerbach sings merrily.
It's a strangely upbeat closer to this disappointing album, but also a slyly hopeful one, as though the band were already planning how to reach another peak.
1 and a 1/2 stars