I’ve long thought the Black Keys a fine band. This should come as no surprise; I am, after all, a white male between the ages of 25 and 50. I might as well have said that I like Game of Thrones or that I own a baseball cap representing the Major League team nearest my childhood hometown.
I like to think, though, that my relationship with the Black Keys is at least as deep as that between the Keys and your average Beardo. I gloried in the way the band got popular, slowly and steadily, one hipster at a time, growing from undersung Ohio two-piece to Staples Center headliner. I’m always pleasantly surprised when one of their albums – Rubber Factory, Brothers, Magic Potion, etc., etc. – hits my iPod. 2011’s El Camino was one of my favorite albums of the year.
So I looked forward to the day this May when the Black Keys released their eighth album, Turn Blue. I dutifully purchased the album and listened to it three times in the first two days I owned it, trying like I always do to reserve judgment for when I’d appropriately digested it.
After doing so, I made a fearful decision:
Just as we’ve reached Peak Internet and Peak Beard, we’ve reached Peak Black Keys.
I listened to a lot of U2 when I was a teenager. This is not something most people my age say; most of them were listening to Nirvana, because most people were significantly more angsty as teenagers than I was.
In slight defense of my teenaged love for U2: this wasn’t your Dad’s U2. When I jumped aboard the U2 boxcar that was rumbling past Meriden, Kansas, the band had outgrown the pump-your-fist choruses that marked the days of Boy, Rattle & Hum, and The Joshua Tree.
It was 1991, and U2 had just released Achtung Baby, which was, sonically, approximately a dozen years ahead of its time. The band followed this with the very-weird but equally long-sighted Zooropa before, in 1998, releasing the superstrange (but great!) Pop.
Most people did not much like this three album suite, and in 2001 U2 did an about-face, releasing the album that spawned that shitty 9/11 song, whose name I will not list here. U2’s attempt at a return to its roots was disastrous to me; I’d loved watching the band take chances, make moves, do its wacko, weirdo thing.
But most important: because U2 had done it, I thought that such flights of fancy were the norm.
The Black Keys didn’t exactly turn their sound on its head on Turn Blue. Sure, they’re working with Danger Mouse and I suppose that’s fun and exciting (Danger Mouse also co-wrote some of El Camino) but Turn Blue isn’t some kind of Achtung Baby.
That’s not to say that Turn Blue isn’t a pleasant-enough album. It has its share of jams that won’t piss you off, and there’s the occasional dip into something new (I enjoy the opening, Black Keysian rumble on “It’s Up To You Now,” for example), and, if you are new to the Black Keys, you’ll probably be perfectly happy with it.
But in this age of musical ubiquity, who among us is new to the Black Keys?
We consumers are lucky to live when we do. The continued fall in the cost to make and release art means more for us greedy eaters of culture.
There is a downside to this, though: we are inundated by music. Bands and their labels can now more easily take the ol’ throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks approach. The result is that listeners don’t know if a particular album was the best everyone could do, or if it was just what everyone did.
The other problem facing the Black Keys (and all rock bands) is a natural one – they’re trafficking in a style of music (more or less: straight ahead rock ‘n roll) that has been done a lot.
If you’re making rock music, you don’t have to make it better than all rock music that came before you. That would be impossible, because Derek & The Dominoes happened.
But you do have to give me a reason to listen, other than that you just put out another album. Take a chance, take a leap, take me somewhere new. Make an Achtung Baby. Make a Zooropa.
We don’t have time for just another album of the same.
Turn Blue is lovely and well-produced and probably sonically pure or something a writer at Pitchfork would say. But in a time marked by an endless crush of music, those characteristics are no longer enough to warrant its existence.
Thus, the advice that follows:
If you do not own anything by the Black Keys, by all means, purchase Turn Blue.
But if you do already own something by the Black Keys, do the following:
Go back and listen to those albums and, instead of buying Turn Blue, buy the new Manchester Orchestra album, COPE. That album is passionate, it takes chances, it will make you pay attention.
And then stay tuned. Because in five years, when I write “Peak Manchester Orchestra,” we’ll all have to find something new to listen to.