On "Turn Blue" (Nonesuch), their eighth album, the Black Keys slip further away from their muddy, grungy blues-rock origins. The duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney began more than a decade ago with an Ohio-centric garage-punk take on Mississippi hill-country boogie. Over seven increasingly ambitious albums, they refined the approach, and "Turn Blue" contains their most atmospheric and somber music yet.
More finesse, less fury. That approach may come as a letdown to the Black Keys' new audience, enamored especially with the linear overdrive of the hook-filled 2011 million-seller, "El Camino," which stamped Carney and Auerbach as new millennium arena rockers, an exclusive group that includes Kings of Leon, Arcade Fire and a handful of others.
"Turn Blue" is soaked in soul texture, saturated in wine-rich atmosphere. It rarely drives the speed limit. Instead, Auerbach's lyrics obsess over a broken relationship, and the music sinks into darkness. Key to the transition is producer Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton. The trust factor with Danger Mouse has expanded since he began working with the duo in 2008, and on "Turn Blue" he gets co-writing credits on all 11 songs and co-production on nine. In the studio he's now a third band member in everything but name.
The opening "Weight of Love" sets the tone, a nearly seven-minute journey that patiently builds, punctuated by bell-like percussion, before opening up into an extended Auerbach guitar solo. It goes on and on, only to recede beneath the waves. Auerbach's narrators struggle to keep from going under. They ruminate on themes of regret, turning over the possibilities of what might have been in an endless, restless spate of 3 a.m. recrimination.
Foregrounding bass and Auerbach's surprisingly delicate vocals — he does a credible Smokey Robinson riff on "Waiting on Words" — the album plays away from some of the Black Keys' previous strengths: big hooks and Carney's stomping drums. The two-man band now sounds like a mini-orchestra, augmented by strings, myriad percussion knickknacks and a galaxy of keyboards. There's the trashy garage-rock organ riff that thumps through "Fever," the rippling piano and heavy gospel shadings that define "In Our Prime," the synth line that swims across "10 Lovers."
The arena-rock crunch of old surfaces only at the end, when the incongruous throwback "Gotta Get Away" announces itself like a Creedence Clearwater Revival outtake. "I went all the way from San Berd'oo to Kalamazoo, just to get away from you," Auerbach sings. After all that turmoil, he and Carney probably figured they earned the right to get a little silly with the rambling-man cliches.
3 stars (out of 4)Copyright © 2015, RedEye