Jack White
Photo: Courtesy of Big Hassle

Jack White Rips the Knobs Off on ‘Fear of the Dawn’

Fear of the Dawn is an intense aural barrage of rock from start to finish and may very well be Jack White’s finest solo output to date.

Fear of the Dawn
Jack White
Third Man Records
8 April 2022

Jack White might be the most interesting person in rock ‘n’ roll. He’s a producer and owns a record label with a small print publishing arm. Within roughly 25 years, White has been a driving force in three rock bands and established a prominent solo career. He is a crucial figure in the vinyl record revival, owning a state-of-the-art record pressing plant in Detroit’s Cass Corridor. Small business owner. Job creator. Grammy winner. He is already rock royalty. And he is releasing two full albums of music in 2022. Where then do we position a figure like Jack White? Is he a throwback to a bygone era or a transitional figure to something new? Or are such questions even necessary initiatory rites to appreciate his music?

Like Jack White himself, it’s enigmatic. His ascendancy began in 1999 as part of the duo, the White Stripes, with ex-wife Meg White. Their version of garage-rock intensity fused Mississippi blues, folk, country, and punk into an alchemical concoction that captivated the rock world. Meg’s shy persona and minimalist drum work were the perfect foil to Jack’s unbounded energy and frantic guitar riffs resulting in six studio albums, including the 2003 breakout classic, Elephant featuring the now-ubiquitous stadium anthem “Seven Nation Army”.  In February of 2011, the band announced their amicable breakup on the Third Man Records website (the independent label founded by Jack White in 2001), citing a desire merely to step away to preserve what the band had already accomplished.

Prior to the White Stripes end, Jack White had been exploring his creative impulses and sharing the lead vocals in two other bands—the Raconteurs with Brendon Benson (2006 debut) and the Dead Weather with Alison Mosshart (2009 debut)—traversing the landscape of the rock ‘n’ roll formula and raw blues and soul respectively. A year after walking away from the White Stripes, he released Blunderbuss (2012), the first of three solo offerings, along with Lazaretto (2014) and Boarding House Reach (2018), that would each reach #1 on the charts. Four years later, White is back to release two new solo albums—Fear of the Dawn on 8 April 2022 and Entering Heaven Alive on 22 July 2022. 

The two albums in one calendar year hint at a portion of the multitudes that White contains within himself. On the one hand, it is a testimony to his prolific creativity and fearlessness in experimentation. On the other hand, like much of White’s persona, it is a throwback to the early days of rock when producers and studios demanded artists deliver two albums per year, an era firmly in much of the industry’s rearview mirror. But ever the renaissance person, Jack White is the producer, studio owner, and artist rolled into one industry juggernaut. He is, to lift a quote from Jay-Z, “a business, man”. 

White explained to Hanif Abdurraqib on a recent Object of Sound podcast that, when the pandemic shut down touring as an option, White took a break of over ten months from writing and playing music and channeled himself into other pursuits. When he picked music back up, the songs began to flow out, and two albums emerged. Where previous solo efforts have mixed the frenetic intensity of White’s prowess on the electric guitar with more reflective, acoustic numbers, the double offering in 2022 will separate those styles into discrete albums. The first of the two releases, Fear of the Dawn, is an intense aural barrage of rock from start to finish and may very well be Jack White’s finest solo output to date. 

Fear of the Dawn grabs the listener by the lapels and doesn’t let go for 12 songs. The album is a hard-driving affair watermarked with what The Darkness frontman Justin Hawkins identified recently in his YouTube series as the patented Jack White formula,  providing songs’ harmonic information mainly through his voice and guitar work. But this is no stripped-down affair. The package contains vocal and guitar effects, genre-blurring, layered vocals, organs and synths, and idiosyncratic lyrical themes. 

Fear of the Dawn opens with “Taking Me Back”, a guitar centering rocker whose acoustic, country version will reportedly close Entering Heaven Alive. The song’s implied themes of a fractured relationship, separate domiciles, and negotiating mail forwarding, holidays, and children raise an early question, “Is this Jack White’s mid-life crisis record?” Like the 46-year-old songwriter himself, it’s elusive and hard to pin down. Other lyrics tease at the reflective poses mid-life often prompts. In “What’s the Trick?” the song’s protagonist asks, “If I die tomorrow, what did I do today?” The whole tone of “That Was Then (This Is Now)” circles around themes of direction and purpose, “Are you making plans or just making sounds?” And yet, the sound and fury of the album signal the opposite of settling in or down. Jack White in 2022 certainly matches, if not surpasses, the raw intensity of his twenties.

Is this a concept album? Following “Taking Me Back” is the title track and second released single, providing a narrative lens to explore the album’s contents. Tracks five and ten underscore this case as they are both named “Eosophobia”, the diagnostic term for an anxiety disorder triggered by an irrational fear of the dawn and daylight. If this is an implied theme of the record,  then perhaps Fear of the Dawn is an album that mirrors our existentially fraught historical moment. Whereas the dawn and daylight images have functioned as literary metaphors of hope on the horizon, White inverts the narrative, hinting that the new day evokes terror. In a world staggering wearily from a pandemic entering its third year, the threat of global war, and a burning planet, the manic intensity of White’s guitar channels the anxiety of the times. 

While only occupying 2:03 of the total run time, “Fear of the Dawn” is a stand-out track, a compact testimony to Jack White’s genius. Offering no quarter, the propulsive guitar riff mimics a distorted bass, and the song pounds ahead with no chorus and an intense 20-second guitar solo that feels longer. Third Man Records’ social media posts in the build-up to the release shared that Jack White played every instrument on the track, including the unique sci-fi echoes of the theremin. While the place of this odd Russian invention from 1919 is ensconced in rock ‘n’ roll lore by the Beach Boys’ trippy “Good Vibrations”, here it returns to its role in the 1950s genre of sci-fi B movies, foreshadowing the alien threat of a profoundly unsettling future. 

Reeling from vertigo after two tracks, there is no respite in sight. The sheer fury of the album pounds ahead, underscoring themes at the threshold of light and dark with many of the songs (“Into the Twilight”, “Dusk”, “Morning, Noon, and Night”) bringing priorities into relief and offering an urgency to the listening experience and the moment. The penultimate track, “Morning, Noon, and Night” enacts the twin positions of the desire for more time alongside inevitable temporal slippage. “I might lie and tell you / We should take our time / But you have to understand / That it’s in short supply.” The music is a performative enactment of the themes, the repetitive drum beat mirroring the relentless movement of time while the keyboard moves in and out of the conversation, often briefly commenting while at other points ecstatically emoting. The aforementioned dual harmonics of Jack White’s voice and guitar situate the listener in narrative dissonance. It’s a dizzying journey.

Fear of the Dawn reveals a mature White who is not only at the height of this prowess as a guitarist whose effects have formed a unique signature he both hones and transgresses.  The album finds him reaching new heights as a producer and creative experimenter. White weaves the energy of garage rock with precise but never showy percussion while dabbling in vocal alteration and random sound effects. Fear of the Dawn contains his inaugural trials with sampling, most notably in “Hi-De-Ho”, a captivating collaboration with A Tribe Called Quest’s MC and producer, Q-Tip. The partnership yields one of the album’s stand-out tracks, merging rhythm and blues, hip hop, and samples of jazz legend Cab Calloway in an infectious tune that provides a brief respite from the album’s intensity but not its energy. White’s musical curiosity and propensity to risk yield impressive returns here.

White himself seems to allude to this burgeoning maturity in the album’s last track. “Shedding My Velvet” draws on the imagery of deer antlers maturing and hardening for adult conflict as an analogy. He is reintroducing himself to us, “Can’t you see? / This is the real me.” This journey to one’s mature self is never solitary. White figures the song’s dialogue partner as a heliotrope, a floral symbol of love and devotion, and a flower that turns its face to the sun. In a pensive gesture, Fear of the Dawn concludes with a potential subversion of the morbid fear of daylight. The song’s narrator recalls his partner’s saying, “better to illuminate than merely shine”, laying a figurative ax to the root of Neil Young’s rock aphorism, “better to burn out than fade away.” 

Fear of the Dawn finds one of rock’s most unique contemporary figures channeling his craft into harmonic convergence, engulfing the listener in kinetic energy while dangling promises of vistas. As the last track prefigures, “I’m not as bad as I was / But I’m not as good as I can be.” It’s an audacious claim delivered within a stellar album. You have our full attention, Jack. 

RATING 9 / 10