Don’t Fear the Middlebrow: The Black Keys’ ‘Turn Blue’

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Somewhere between the rise of Pitchfork and poptimism becoming de rigueur in our genre-agnostic listening culture, middlebrow music became the guiltiest pleasure. Even among the most rockist music fans, it has become socially acceptable to praise Kesha or to unironically place a Rihanna song on a party playlist. The idea, it seems, is that a bit of junk-food pop is part of a healthy diet, nestled next to “challenging” and “serious” artists — the musical equivalent of brain-fueling superfoods. So where exactly does that leave the musical equivalent of a Chipotle burrito? Like, say, The Black Keys, whose new album Turn Blue is out this week?

Some might say I am giving the band too much credit with a Chipotle comparison. Reviews of their recent output have not shied away from suggesting the shows and companies for which their songs would make adequate syncs, and The Awl went as far as satirically reviewing Turn Blue as a sponsored collaboration with Applebee’s. A harsh comparison, but I will admit that the first time I heard “Gotta Get Away,” Turn Blue’s charged-up cowbell closer (and the best song on the album), I actually said aloud to another human, “This song reminds me of something they always played at our local wing chain.” Being from the same 50-mile radius of Northeast Ohio as the Black Keys — an area whose radio dial will be permanently stuck on one of the multiple classic-rock stations — I started wondering if it’s possible they might just have been to the same wings place and heard the same song.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XELFBYSG9tw]

Here’s the thing: I like Chipotle, and chicken wings, and hell, when it’s half-price appetizer time, Applebee’s will do. I can’t hate any of these things on principle, just like I can’t dislike the Black Keys simply because we’ve decided it’s fashionable to do so. And I get it — I mean, this is a band that sued Pizza Hut and Home Depot for using songs that sounded too Black Keysian in commercials. Somewhere in between their experiment in hit-writing with Danger Mouse and their ascent to festival headliner status, the band stopped being the garage-rock movement’s sole holdover and turned into a parody of classic-rock-radio revivalism. So much for the hard-won success of mid-level underdogs.

This is where we pick up the Keys’ story, as they finally progress past the white British blues revivalists of the late ’60s, smoke some weed, and arrive in the ’70s. The album doesn’t have an obvious radio hit, something the last two Black Keys albums — 2010’s Brothers and 2011’s El Camino — had in multiples, while the band has been referring to Turn Blue, ominously, as a “headphone record.” Reviewers have been comparing it to Dark Side-era Pink Floyd, but really, it doesn’t have that depth of concept or genuinely psychedelic sound. At best, it’s the Black Keys shooting for the dark side of the moon and ending up sounding like Cream (or, maybe more accurately, Tame Impala) — only they can’t remember how to get swampy.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=trk7P-9QDyc]

There’s a big audience for this kind of stuff — first single “Fever” tries for that “let’s do the twist!” appeal of “Lonely Boy,” and so far it’s doing OK, commercially speaking (No. 77 on the Hot 100, No. 2 on Alternative Songs). It’s the song you don’t mind hearing on the mainstream rock radio station, or the walk-on music for an MLB player. At this point, the Black Keys are neither tacky nor terribly innovative. Ultimately, the music falls short of the duo’s big personalities — in their marketing schticks, in candid interviews, in drummer Pat Carney’s constant Twitter beefs — but then again, it always kind of has.

As ever, their lyrics chronicle failed relationships and offer up tasteful sexual euphemisms. Dan Auerbach knows how to write a riff that sticks in your head, Carney is an uninhibited drummer, and the partnership with Danger Mouse has taught these two that a Hammond organ is nothing to fear. Sure, it’s the type of thing I keep trying to turn my classic rock-loving dad on to (so of course Rolling Stone loved it), but there’s nothing here in this middlebrow music that should invite shame. Pop the sunroof and blast it in your car on the ride to Chipotle, or your local wing establishment, or hell, even Applebee’s. Allow me to suggest one of their Ultimate Trios — they’re a good value.