Admitting that he’s never wanted to go it alone, Jack White’s solo debut, Blunderbuss, offers something that many people familiar with the band/group product only get with separate solo work, and that is a sharpened focus on the ‘essence’ of that player’s talents. But, as with many of the things that Jack White has attached his name to, it comes within rules and boundaries, and ultimately ends up with listeners asking more questions than coming to conclusions. Those factors, which are ultimately diversions from the actual product itself and have little to nothing to do with the artist’s work so much as it works as a marketing strategy, will not be discussed here. Shame, because his previous work and decisions, being so fascinating in terms of questioning motives, intentions, and truths, surround every little thing about the album. If there was never a desire to go solo, why bother compiling these efforts? Why tour in support of it? Why name it Blunderbuss? Is it more like the White Stripes? The Go? The Raconteurs? Dead Weather?
All of that doesn’t matter, though the title does invite that kind of speculation in terms of meaning – in the same way the phrase Get Behind Me Satan invites the same guesswork – and some of those questions can be answered without doubt. What does matter is that Mr. White is back, and sharing his unique talents once again.
Whether or not it’s any good, well, that takes a jump into it.
The most immediate thing to stand out about Blunderbuss is that Jack’s usual bag of tricks is left to the side and only sparsely opened up and kept to a relative minimum. These are now well-worn trademarks to most Jack White compositions: certain blues turnaround riffs that he’s used time and time again; the octave pedal-upon-octave pedal; lyrics about ‘truth.’ And in that respect, it lends to a refreshing view of the album, not only as a collection of new material from a favored artist, but one who wants to show his strengths not just as a rocker, but as a composer.
The other most immediate thing is that the one track that seems the most typical to his strengths, and lead-off single, “Love Interruption,” fares better in the context of Blunderbuss, a 13-track venture of a wide array of styles, sounds, and emotions. When I first heard “Love Interruption,” I thought it a weak sample of an artist resting on his laurels. When surrounded by the rest of the album, it stands out because the rest of the album doesn’t sound anything like it. Much like his work in the White Stripes, it requires a few listens to realize a theme does, in fact, run throughout, and that a logical progression has been mapped out; and, much like his former band, the divide is obvious for vinyl listeners where the emotions separate between the flip of the record.
“Missing Pieces” starts Side A with a jumpy, nervous Fender Rhodes that segues into a familiar Jack White motif: the slow, gentle progression before jumping into a mid-tempo jam, guaranteed to get the head to nod, bouncing to a melancholy song about expectations. But don’t get too comfortable; “Sixteen Saltines” assaults with a heavy rhythm, octave-and-tremolo-laden chorus, and a riff that doesn’t have much of a hook, but the intense aggression of the song stays anyway, before ending abruptly after a brilliant build up. And just like that, “Freedom at 21” pounds away an insistent rhythm, while Jack spouts out an almost-rap in a song with plenty of quiet-and-loud dynamics to make it a sure concert favorite.
(note: posted below is the official video of “Sixteen Saltines.” Though there’s nothing explicitly violent or sexual, I would like to warn you that there are some images that may disturb a few of you out there).
And then there’s “Love Interruption,” which finally has context and a much stronger set of songs to surround it. Again, I didn’t love this song when it first debuted as a single a while ago, and I still don’t. It’s not that it’s too simple in comparison, but that it seems strategically made to appeal fans who appreciate his bluesier tendencies, with little else other than being a torch-bearer. It fares better on the album, but is still weak comparatively, especially to the title track.
Built around the same patterns as Bob Dylan’s “Isis,” (which, the White Stripes have covered in concert) “Blunderbuss” is a gorgeous bluegrass and folk song that is at once intimate and huge. Slide guitars swell; violins sway; and the guitar and drum insist on a quiet storm of a rhythm. When combined with the one-two punch of the brightly bittersweet “Hypocritical Kiss,” it’s clear that these two tracks are centerpiece of the album, bridging the gap between his adoring fans and those who have been curious but couldn’t get passed the gimmicks of the White Stripes’ color scheme. And, while the genres he’s working with approached with familiarity and sincerity, they work on a different level in terms of color. There are sounds in these two songs that don’t feel completely natural coming from any of Jack’s previous projects, but fit like a glove anyway because of his confidence in employing them, and writing these lush, beautiful parts.
“I’m Shakin’” begins the B-side, and all of a sudden, Jack shows an intense amount to Johnny Rivers-style brand of rockabilly, complete with female back-ups that ooh, coo, and handclap throughout. Yet, it never gets quite as funky as the riff implies it might; instead playing it relatively straight. Strange, when considering the playfulness compared to the A-side, and Jack’s shouts “You got me noy-vous,” in full Three Stooges nyuk-nyuk accent. “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” keeps the playfulness going, with a bouncy rhythm and lyrical melody borrowed from the less serious moments of the Kinks, and an intro that works like an over-simplified Andrew Bird composition. The stunning discovery of colors is what keeps it all at bay and in-theme with the rest of the album, but has little in common with anything else Jack’s ever done before. As does “I Guess I Should Go to Sleep,” a pop tune that is so decidedly old-fashioned and traditional (despite a manic piano introduction), it feels like the lyrics would have, should have, appeared somewhere in the rambling mess of Gravity’s Rainbow. It’s almost as if, in Mr. White’s mind, pop and rock never married, are two completely separate entities, and have no business being associated with one another. Yet, the closest those two ideals come together on the album is the song that comes between them, the glammy, stomping “Trash Tongue Talker.”
Yet, almost comically, for the introspective qualities of the first half, and the serious-fun of the second, the final track, “Take Me With You When You Go” attempts to marry the two ideals together, with a rhythmic progression borrowed, predominantly from Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” and with a little room for a fuzzed out guitar toward the end and some stressingly high vocal harmonies that prove more distraction than addition. It’s progressive in the vein of the White Stripes’ “300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues,” but perhaps takes itself more seriously than expected. Yet, the sweetness in Jack’s voice and melody, as the song builds to the climax, asking a ‘girl’ in question to take him when she goes, is precisely the kind of delicate quality that made so many fall in love with his work so long ago, in the days of De Stijl and White Blood Cells.
GRADE: B. Regardless of being familiar with Mr. White’s work and style, or even not, the value of simplicity is great, even when what’s on display here is an impressive array of color within a strict adherence to the rules of what American traditional, folk, rock, punk rock, bluegrass, and R&B could be. Granted, a lot of those genres inform one another, but the textures are all different; and Jack White has finally condensed them all into a product distinctly his own. His songs remain as sharp and as sweet as they have ever been, but now there is a playful complexity, one that never relents to the ultimate message of keeping it simple, but instead works to embolden and underline what’s at the album’s heart. It’s an effective strategy of contrasts playing against one another, and one that few artists could pull off with confidence, or even unshaking bravado.
Yet, an album so exactly composed to do so doesn’t necessarily work out for the best results all the time. Blunderbuss is still without any real hooks, a surprise coming from an artist responsible, (albeit, indirectly) for what is now the ultimate soccer rallying cry, and the reason why record execs give bands like Cage the Elephant or Alabama Shakes a fair shake nowadays. There’s nothing here that would be even close to being filler material; yet being simple is not quite the same as being primitive – a quality that always works to Jack’s strengths. And so, the album seems lacking for a few big moments, and it’s very hard to have a ‘big moment’ when your overall product covers so much different ground at once. It’s not an instantaneously brilliant record, but one that slowly reveals the maturity of an artist still set in his ways about playing to certain parameters, strictly defined yet easily broken when he finds a way to do so, as long as the rules being broken deserve to be so. And, at the same time, it is not a pure dilution of the kind of ideas and talents he previously contributed elsewhere, nor is it a creative mind without the feedback of an equal to cancel the bad ideas. Instead, it’s a blast of pure manic energy, unfocused as it is, and willing to display the artist’s past, present, and potential future, all at once, yet dwells on nothing but moving in every direction.