A Jack White solo album at first appears like a head-scratching contradiction – a paradox assembled of guitar hero/anti-hero antimatter. White has never released music outside of a group context, be it The White Stripes’ dynamic-duo axis, The Raconteurs’ twin-headed frontman/songwriter monster, or The Dead Weather’s quasi-indie supergroup vibe, or his stint in Detroit garage-rockers The Go. At the same time, White has one of the most famously dominating personalities in all of rock (believe me, I know from personal experience – I’ve interviewed him, and survived). Even in the group context, regardless of the strong personalities like Brendan Benson (in The Raconteurs) and Alison Mosshart (in Dead Weather), White becomes the focus – whatever band he plays in, even as “just” the drummer, seems to become about his outsize trip. Listening to Blunderbuss, then, proves educational: as his first fully solo effort, it makes clear what he owes (and brings) to the group dynamic, and what he’s got going on when he doesn’t have to filter his vision through others – if he even had to in the first place, but that was the illusion, anyway.
What distinguishes Blunderbuss right away from White’s collective projects is it’s probably a little richer in terms of production and “mature,” which is lazy critical shorthand for string sections, baroque piano flourishes, acoustic guitar, and a lush, historic Southern/country influence as grand as a Gothic plantation mansion. It’s an approach that at first feels a little unsatisfying and mannered after having first experienced White’s more raw, direct exploits; as one settles in to Blunderbuss’ pleasures, however, the manifold dimensions of White’s masterful mania reveal themselves. His talent is too outsized, eccentric, and unpredictable to settle comfortably into the classy grooves: even in the more welcoming, accessible moments here, White’s yodeling vibrato remains as odd, snotty, and confrontational in its own way as Mark E. Smith’s snarl. And yes, that’s a compliment!
Blunderbuss’ greatest attribute is how it demonstrates the variety of White’s interests and aptitudes – this is not the output of a musical Luddite. Just as The Raconteurs’ “Steady As She Goes” tweaked Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?,” a song here like “Weep Themselves To Sleep” subversively quotes classic-rock anthems like Joe Walsh’s FM-radio mainstay “Life’s Been Good.” The title track, likewise, rocks Zep-style acoustic balladry that could’ve placed on the soundtrack for Almost Famous (or Singles, for that matter – Cameron Crowe obviously needs to get in touch). At the same time, “Freedom At 21” features a Portishead-ian, almost trip-hop groove of skittering drums and syncopated near-raps and adlibs – that’s even more shocking than the provocative faux anachronism of the lyrics.
Where White shines most brightly, song for song, is his guitar playing (surprise, surprise). “Missing Pieces” has an incredible, succinct blast of a solo that’s actually better than the song itself; “Sixteen Saltines” also has a notably wild six-string excursion, while on “Freedom At 21” White works up an atonal scree that might make Greg Ginn envious. Meanwhile, “I’m Shakin’” – a cover of a song made famous by ‘50s R&B star Little Willie John – comes closest to the unhinged style we’ve come to know and love from The White Stripes, and it has an appropriately insane-sounding, absolutely fantastic, utterly screaming lead line that takes the already nutso delivery up a notch: White’s guitar here exists as the Greek chorus telling the unspeakable truths, the beast within that only shows his head for contrast as opposed to being the whole show.
If White’s status as a guitar hero proves his enduring legacy, well, so be it: he has excellent chops and hair and image, as this album makes clear in spades. “Take Me With You When You Go” epitomizes Blunderbuss’ split personality, with its links to the various recognizable strands of White’s career. At first, it appears distinctly unique within his repertoire: a Fifth Dimension-meets-Grand Ole Opry reflective hootenanny with a jazzy progression and soft vocal. It’s the antithesis of much of, say, the White Stripes aesthetic – until it starts blasting the fuzz guitar and a crazed, high-pitched vocal in the middle. In “Take Me With You…,” White also does a call-and-response with a trio of female sirens including his ex-wife Karen Elson, and indeed the duality between males and females provides a thematic motif that echoes throughout Blunderbuss: Yes, there are a lot of lyrics here you could probably assume are about White’s recent divorce to Elson, or the breakup of The White Stripes, or whatever; I’m sure the blogs you read regularly will have done a fine job parsing that by the time you’re done reading this sentence. These are the thoughts of a man who’s clearly lived, loved, and lost some limbs, apparently – images and metaphors of violence and dismemberment figure widely; the sonics go on the same ride, taking us on the journey of a man whose bands were once written about in Maximum RocknRoll, now appears on the cover of Rolling Stone, and thrashed the whole time on the Internet in between. As such, White’s moved out of the garage and into the stately Nashville epic-boogie mansion of many a rocker’s dreams: all the layers and attention to detail here make clear that, when it comes to crafting opuses that skirt the personal and impersonal with such ambition, well, White is right. These days, nobody does it better, bigger, or weirder.
-Matt Diehl @iammattdiehl
Matt Diehl is the author of four books: his most recent is Drinking With Strangers, the memoir of Butch Walker, which Diehl co-authored and will be published by William Morrow in late October. Elsewhere, Diehl’s writing has appeared in the likes of Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, SPIN, W Magazine, and Interview, where he is Contributing Music Editor. He lives in Los Angeles, California.
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