“‘I’ve always resisted it,’ he says of going solo. ‘I thought it was just an easy-way-out, showbiz, boring choice to make. It’s a remnant of back in the day when nobody had any idea what to do with themselves. Like you’re in a famous band, and then you have your solo career for the rest of your life and then you die.’”
—Jack White to Rolling Stone, April 2012
“We have very few ‘rock stars’ left in today’s music culture. I mean like Jack White. It seems that he’s the only one left.”
—Benjamin Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) to PopMatters, June 2008
It’s true: Jack White may be the only real “rock star” we have left these days.
Oh sure, we’ll still have an overabundance of rockers from here to eternity, but only in the rarest of times are we treated with a “rock star”, one who doesn’t simply define the rock paradigm for the era, but also serves as our one-stop-shop for everything that is truly “cool”. Jack White has been this generation’s dispenser of all things “cool” for several reasons. For one, he had better songs than anybody else. While we can all recall the numerous groups that broke through in great garage-rock boom of the early 2000s (the Vines, the Hives, Jet, [insert your favorite guitar-based one-hit-wonder here]), the White Stripes survived the battle because unlike their “peers” they were often lumped in with, they rarely sounded like any of them, and backed up their grisly, raw approach with tunes with solid pop chops. When that inevitable White Stripes Greatest Hits album does get released, it’ll be filled with cuts that cover the whole rock spectrum: the surging “Fell in Love With a Girl”, the piano bounce of “My Doorbell”, the wild “Icky Thump”, the iconic “Seven Nation Army”, the wistful “We’re Going to Be Friends”, etc., all smeared with a nice helping of grime and fuzz, a simple thing that made their rockers sound in-the-red raw and their ballads all the sweeter because of the contrast. Their live shows were a sight to behold, and slowly but surely, the White Stripes overcame their flimsy are-they-siblings-or-not gimmick to become a musical force that deserved the canonization they received. By ending the group’s run as abruptly as he did, White—much like with R.E.M.‘s amicable bow-out—ensured that his band’s legacy was preserved, ranked, drawn and quartered, freeing him to pursue other opportunities without having to answer “White Stripes reunion?!” questions for the rest of his life.
Yet the White Stripes alone didn’t make White the ambassador of cool that he has become. His love of rock history shone through in just about everything he did, ranging from live concert singalongs of “Boll Weevil” to producing comeback albums with everyone from Loretta Lynn to Wanda Jackson, and in doing so, he introduced whole new audiences to the works of forgotten legends, sometimes (as with Lynn) even elevating them to newfound critical heights. Finally, Jack White wasn’t afraid to be eccentric, forming multiple bands (The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather), pulling wild commercial stunts (like the “surprise” release of the Raconteurs second album, which was inherently more interesting than what was on the album itself), and pulling a Prince-at-his-peak move by producing countless one-off records from his record imprint wherein everyone who participated ended up sounding like Jack White at the end. At times he fell flat on his face (his wretched James Bond theme, that Insane Clown Posse collaboration that we’ll never speak about again), but such things only proved that he was human, and even with his critical adulation, he still had enough room to try insane things without ever losing his living legend status.
As such, Blunderbuss, White’s first solo record, shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise: it sounds exactly like you’d expect a Jack White solo record to sound like. The only downside to it? It sounds exactly like you’d expect a Jack White solo record to sound like.
White did an excellent job of previewing the album with his choice of singles: while “Sixteen Saltines” is essentially his “Crazy Beat” (a big, dumb riff-rocker that sounds like a watered down version of his previous rock hits), it was the album’s first single, the alluring “Love Interruption”, that showed White wasn’t afraid to be daring. It was gorgeously understated, peppered with clarinet and female backing vocals, the whole things serving as a thesis statement for what was to follow, as Blunderbuss is one remarkably dark album. “I want love to roll me over slowly / Stick a knife inside me / And twist it all around,” he croons, and that’s only the beginning of his woes.
“Cut off the bottoms of my feet / Make me walk on salt / Take me down to the police / Charge me with assault,” he intones on the Zep-indebted “Freedom at 21”, which describes a woman who can beat him and leave him bloodied because “she’s got freedom in the 21st century” before launching into one of the most wild guitar solos we’ve heard from him for some time, almost as if his arpeggios are articulating his inner pain. Is he bitter? Is he indignant? It’s hard to say. Although we remembered how White and Karen Elson seemed to amicably split by throwing a lavish “divorce party”, White pulls no punches with his lyrics here, going after a lover who betrayed him and left him burned, the level of violence on this album not seen since Cage was rapping in his prime. “My temper got the best of me / And when I said what I mean / I know that every single thing that I said was true / And I know that you’re mad at me / But if you’re thinkin’ like I did / Then I think you’ll see that you’re mad at you, too,” he notes on “Hypocritical Kiss”, before going in for the kill with “You would sell your own mother out / And then betray your own dead brother / With another hypocritical kiss.” Even with its meaning slightly obscured, the only logical reaction to this barb is simple: “ouch”.
Blunderbuss’ first half continues very much in this vein, showing White with his fangs bared, often casting himself as the victim (as he does on the very Stripes-like opener “Missing Pieces”, another highlight) in order to make a point. The whole first half of the disc features some tale of romantic woe in some form or another, and at first, the whole thing clicks. Some critics have compared this to Blood on the Tracks, which holds water until we realize that instead of focusing the whole disc on a romance gone bad, the disc’s second half somewhat blurs together, feeling more like “a collection of songs” than it does a focused thesis. This less-compelling latter portion loses the immediacy that could make even a low-key number like “Love Interruption” so arresting, the lyrics going all over the place before White finds himself falling back on old hat tricks we’ve heard before. While the barroom singalong “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” features enough boogie-woogie piano to make Jules Holland blush, its tunes like the fairly inconsequential “I Guess I Should Go to Sleep” that work better as genre exercises than they do full album tracks. The country-fied “On and On and On” is very understated but lacks any sort of true metaphorical punch, even as it circles around ideas like the lunar cycle in an attempt to come off as deep. The same goes for the rollicking “Trash Tongue Talker”, which, although fun, proves to be more fleeting than it is lasting, its loose lyrics being backed by tracks that sound far more polished than anything we’ve heard from a White record as of recent, the drums especially being given a professional sheen that, while nice sounding, lacks the same punch that could be felt on White Stripes or Dead Weather records.
Even with that in mind, White has never been one from shying away from experimentation, and there are two tracks here that show his eccentricities are alive and well. “I’m Shakin’” recasts White as a modern-day Elvis (although, let’s be honest, it’ll be hard to top the last time he tried being the King), complete with doo-wop backing vocals and a ‘50s-inspired rock riff that happens to be painted with a little ‘70s guitar fuzz, the whole thing showing that White’s sense of play has not waned in the slightest. (Note: “I’m Shakin’” is a cover of Little Willie John. The song was written by either Isaac or Rudy Toombs, the Internet is inconsistent on this matter, and also notably covered by the Blasters.) It’s the closing track “Take Me With You When You Go”, however, that is 31 different flavors of weird, and all the more spectacular because of it. Things start off pleasant enough: a simple key pattern, some violin tossed in, backing vocals—something that falls in line with the rest of Blunderbuss pretty easily. Then comes the 2:04 mark, where things take a turn for the rock, Jack White speeds his voice up like he’s creating his own Camille-like alter-ego, and then he breaks out the honest-to-goodness funk guitar solo that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Parliament/Funkadelic album, all while retaining the keys and violin from before. It’s absolutely nuts, but absolutely perfect as well. For all his revisionism, it’s something great just to hear White let loose, and with this, he absolutely doesn’t disappoint.
In the end, Blunderbuss is a confused little record that wants to be two things at once: a pointed statement about the pains of a breakup and a collection of songs that are both daring and wacky and eccentric all at once. Ultimately, despite all the critics desperately wanting White to continue being our modern-day rock savior, the record can’t have it both ways—although it’s still a blast to hear it try.