As if the blues weren’t already dark enough. For the entirety of the Dead Weather’s debut album, Horehound, Jack White—who, in a commendable show of ego control, relegates himself to the drum stool for this, a sure-to-be successful supergroup (dirty word, I know) he somehow managed to cobble together in the downtime between fronting two of the only signs of life in today’s alt-rock landscape—Alison Mosshart and company are visibly determined to imbue an art form which is already obsessed with depression, loss, and all manner of cheerful things with even inkier shades of the human condition.
And yet, for all the stuff that could go wrong with a band that labels itself with the near redundancy “gothic blues”, a band that, given its pedigree, many people will be itching to peg as a one-off, indulgent vanity project (short answer: it’s not)... well, let’s just say that Horehound is probably a lot closer in spirit to the music the Devil had in mind the night he signed Robert Johnson than most of the rock music we’ve been (patiently, very patiently) dealing with for the better part of this decade.
Horehound certainly draws inspiration from White’s now well-documented obsessions with blues-rock tradition—though while his influence is felt all over this album, it must be stressed that he’s far from the primary player here, sharing songwriting credits with the rest of the band and rarely taking the mic from Mosshart’s capable hands. But it equally draws from the stark atmosphere of early Nick Cave and the chilly detachment of the more goth-leaning end of post-punk, with a few vague, possibly incidental nods to industrial music, in that the guitars and keys (courtesy of both Queens of the Stone Age’s Dean Fertita and the Raconteurs’s Jack Lawrence) on this album are so wonderfully thick and filthy that they’re often less traditional musical instruments and more hulking, grinding machines. But then, self-consciously dark tone aside, this isn’t exactly the sort of stuff that would sit comfortably next to, say, Bauhaus on your next Halloween mixtape. The Dead Weather have far less to do with graveyards (though yeah, we do get the lyric “I build a house / For your bones”) than they do cracked, windswept wastes, a southern gothic sound more suited to a Flannery O’Connor short story than a haunted house attraction.
The Dead Weather reveal themselves to be a unique entity early in the game, making their aims known through slow-burning opener “60 Feet Tall”, a song that evolves from a solitary, distant blues riff to an outright apocalypse, White’s cymbals crashing into Mosshart’s banshee shrieks, Fertita’s unhinged guitar playing itself out into oblivion. It’s this sort of juxtaposition between eerie desolation and jagged tumult that informs much of Horehound, and it’s rarely less than compelling. Part of the credit for this goes to some fascinatingly subversive songwriting. The aforementioned opening track involves a false stop that, against everything you’ve learned from Zeppelin over the years, doesn’t transition directly into a frenetic, guitar-shredding climax (though that climax inevitably comes, because, hey, the whole thing would be pretty damned boring if it didn’t); lead single “Hang You from the Heavens”, despite its dirty, contagious two-chord riff, is as likely to follow Mosshart’s sultry, threatening chorus with a rousing guitar break as it is with a swampy drum fill; and the band’s sinister cover of Bob Dylan’s “New Pony” drenches uncomfortable lines like “Come over here pony / I wanna climb up one time on you” in as much sleazy guitar fuzz as they deserve (which, naturally, is a whole hell of a lot).
Despite being almost rigidly conceptual in their mission—which, by the time you get to the chain gang chant of the Mosshart-penned “So Far from Your Weapon”, is clearly to dive directly to the murky, clinically depressed core of blues tradition—the Dead Weather turn out a surprisingly full-bodied, unpredictable album with Horehound. Anyone claiming to have been expecting a distorted White singing (and dementedly choking) over the haunted dub keyboards of standout “I Cut Like a Buffalo”, or the near-rap vocals of vaguely incestuous, funk-driven second single “Treat Me Like Your Mother” are simply not being honest. And even when the album begins to regurgitate itself and skirts a bit too close to the sort of doom and gloom indigenous to death metal (late album track “No Hassle Night”, despite being perfectly listenable, is guilty on both counts), the desolate, volatile sonic world it creates is always as disturbing as it is fascinating—which, being that it can get pretty damn disturbing, is assuredly a good thing.
With all four of the musicians who comprise the Dead Weather recording Horehound in the time between their still very profitable day jobs (and quickly, at that), it’s unfortunate that this band’s chances of soldiering on to a sophomore effort are likely as grim as their actual songs. Which is an enormous shame, because while the Dead Weather might not necessarily surpass the accomplishments of its impressive pedigree, it’s certainly more uncompromising, brutal, menacing, honest. And if those aren’t the exact qualities society latched onto when they heard that first 12-bar chord progression ring out from the swamps of the deep south and branded it the Devil’s music, then let the good Lord strike me down right where I stand.