Jack White
Photo: Courtesy of Big Hassle

Jack White Dazzles With an Expansive Musical Palette on ‘Entering Heaven Alive’

With Entering Heaven Alive Jack White offers the yang to the yin of Fear of the Dawn while broadening his musical palette.

Entering Heaven Alive
Jack White
Third Man Records
22 July 2022

With the release of Entering Heaven Alive, Jack White has delivered two studio albums within the course of three and a half months in 2022. This new record might produce listener whiplash following the kinetic, quasi-paranoid intensity of Fear of the Dawn and the It Might Get Loud electric guitar ferocity of the supporting “Supply Chain Issues” tour. Yet, even with their tonal and genre differences, the albums give testimony to a season of intriguing creative fruitfulness for White, a period yielding artistic adventurousness and experimentation.

Over a quarter of a century into his musical career, Jack White displays little appetite for settling. His ongoing musical experimentation and boldness parallel both minor and significant personal changes. In 2022, he dyed his hair electric blue, his locks gravitating to another hue of his solo discography’s tri-colored (black/blue/white) scheme. More consequential examples of bold spontaneity emerged when he kicked off his “Supply Chain Issues” tour in his hometown of Detroit and proposed to and then married his girlfriend and fellow Third Man Records artist, Olivia Jean, onstage during the show.

If Entering Heaven Alive is any indication, White has been pondering life, love, and longevity, much like the rest of us during this pandemic season. Whereas Fear of the Dawn was jumpy with the anxiety of the times, the follow-up album explores the possibility of securing a footing in life’s uncertain terrain. The prospect of love and the choices we make or miss provide the reflective fodder he explores while playfully moving through themes of country music, jazz, ragtime, and psychedelic pop throughout the album, with crossovers happening within the space of some songs. 

The early release of singles “Love is Selfish” and “Taking Me Back (Gently)” hinted that Entering Heaven Alive could be a country-tinged album, owing more to the influences of Nashville than the Mississippi Delta blues within much of his previous output. The album does display a rich appreciation of country music and branches of its family tree. White exhibits that his guitar prowess extends beyond shredding the electric guitar to acoustic fingerpicking. The breadth and ingenuity of the “Nashville Sound” are gestured to in many places, including the inclusion of the tic-tac bass played by  Olivia Jean on “All Along the Way.” This unique, rhythmic innovation that emerged out of Music City in the late 1950s and was a staple on many country and pop hits of the 1960s is just one tint in his expansive musical palette on this album. 

“Will I be alone tonight?” White croons in the reflective album opener, “A Tip From You to Me”. Propelled by gentle acoustic guitar strumming in conversation with pondering piano notes, the song features dubbed vocals where he harmonizes with himself while exploring a paradox of the human condition. As self-reflective creatures, we can gaze upon our situation but does such ability remove us from the moment? “Ask yourself if you are happy and then you cease to be.” It is one of many puzzles of life the album pokes at but never resolves.

In the second track, “All Along the Way”, the trademark intensity of Jack White’s music roils just beneath the surface of the mostly acoustic progression of the song, erupting in small bursts. White employs vocal inflections, brief sortie strikes by the electric guitar, Hammond organ notes, and lyrical tension rather than relying solely on face-melting electric guitar effects to guide his listeners into the song’s emotional weight. It is about the beautiful, mysterious fragility of connection, after all. 

This quiet intensity continues in both “Help Me Along” and “Love Is Selfish”. The latter is a gently arresting acoustic solo performance where White’s deft fingerpicking complements his singular vocal in sketching the insistent vulnerability of love’s intrusion on life. Love’s “selfishness” is code for how this most intense of experiences is beyond our desire for control and perfect comprehension. His songwriting shines with striking images that seek to gesture at this mystery without losing it in the passion for technical precision. “And I’ve got a sailboat with her name written on it / But I don’t know how to sail” evokes how desire often displaces our sense of self-mastery. 

With the listener settled into the Americana atmosphere of the first four songs, White opens the genre book wide open and moves back and forth within it as if it were an exotic buffet line. He samples and combines, showing himself as a student of American music and its roots and branches. “I’ve Got You Surrounded (With My Love)” evokes American jazz. The piano and drums feature Herbie Hancock-like inflections offering more improvisational jazz conversation than a hook-filled pop tune. 

White’s whimsical side is on full display in “Queen of the Bees”, a catchy tune about being in the throes of desire that employs Beatleesque psychedelia replete with a mellotron-driven carnival atmosphere and the playfulness of McCartney’s love songs. One can almost imagine Jack White in a straw boater hat, a boldly striped vaudeville suit, and sporting a cane as he performs the tune. 

Continuing to plumb the depths of American musical history, “If I Die Tomorrow” is a confessional song that would be at home within the spirit of Marty Robbins’ gunfighter ballads. White evokes (without definitively naming) the musical and visual tropes of the lone gunslinger to communicate the tentative fragility of life’s journey and the inevitable bonds of connection that shape each of us on our journeys. It also echoes and expands the question he previously posed in Fear of the Dawn’s “What’s the Trick?”: “If I die tomorrow / What did I do today?”

There is ragtime, folk, and jazz interspersed throughout the offerings on Entering Heaven Alive that make a case for Jack White as rock’s 21st-century renaissance man. The album closes with more samples of the American musical landscape. The cool detachment of “A Madman From Manhattan” is exuded by the scat-like delivery of White’s lyrics. The words are less a precise narrative than a different instrument in conversation with the jazz fusion guitar and piano as White weaves sounds, syllables, and breath breaks in an improvisational dialogue.

Entering Heaven Alive concludes where Fear of the Dawn began. He reprises “Taking Me Back,” only this time with the qualifier “gently.” What started the previous album as a declaration of sound and fury now brings Entering Heaven Alive to a close with an Americana mix of Appalachian strings and ragtime piano. The tempo transformation tempers the harsh, driving tonality of accusation within the question, “Are you taking me back?”. Here it becomes a playful conversation colored with the looseness of a saloon band. It is almost as if the tension of eosophobia (literally, fear of the dawn) in the previous album gives way to the surprising levity of love traced in the first part of its follow-up. The song’s acoustic brightness fades in a penultimate ending, with the fiddle notes fading into the intense electric guitar pedal effects of the Fear of the Dawn opener. This gesture hints at a connective tissue binding the two albums in a sonic loop that is less a precise circular orbit than a compositional yin and yang. 

While Entering Heaven Alive lacks the thematic and musical consistency of Fear of the Dawn, it is no less striking with the depth of its musical diversity. While the former offered intriguing lyrical and musical ciphers that one could speculate were a commentary on anxious times, Entering Heaven Alive pulls the gaze closer to the self. The reflections on love’s ambiguous beauty and the importance of living in the moment reveal it as the complement to Fear of the Dawn rather than its counterpoint. Taken together as a singular statement or appreciated individually in isolation,  either way, Jack White is staking a claim on the musical landscape of 2022 and beyond.

RATING 8 / 10
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