Two thousand and eleven was a decisive year for the character of Jack White. The relentless performer, the obsessive producer, the eccentric musical entrepreneur ended his two most enduring relationships. He split from his wife, Karen Elson; and finally cast adrift the band which catapulted him to acclaim, The White Stripes. Both splits were advertised as amicable. White and his wife invited friends to a “divorce party”, whilst The White Stripes were gifted away to everyone in order to “preserve what is beautiful and special about the band.”
After listening to Blunderbuss, White’s first solo effort, it seems the affability of both these splits is only surface deep. There is a great bitterness which undercuts White’s solo debut. And it is this bitterness which separates it from any of White’s previous work, and which ultimately makes the album an underwhelming affair.
That’s not to say the music here is completely unfamiliar, ‘Missing Pieces’ recalls the groove of The Raconteurs’ ‘Top Yourself’, however the western charm and playful banjo of the former is replaced by stale production and a poorly employed metaphor about losing parts of yourself after a breakup: “I woke up and my hands were gone, yeah/I looked down and saw my legs were long gone.”
The album’s second single ‘Sixteen Saltines’ asserts why Jack White is at the top of the rock and roll food chain: boisterous riffing, captivating production, another dangerous woman metaphor, this time one which is taking its toll on the author: “she doesn’t know that when she’s gone I sit and drink her perfume.” The pain continues on ‘Freedom at 21’: “she don’t care what kind of bruises she inflicts upon me.” It would seem White’s been hard done by, until he outs himself as a masochist on ‘Love Interruption’: “I want love to stick a knife inside me and twist it all around.”
Wait, scratch that; “I won’t let love disrupt, corrupt or interrupt me.”
There’s a great confusion to ‘Love Interruption’; aside from its thematic contradiction. As a lead single it showcases none of White’s strength’s. There are no drums, no piano, certainly no screeching guitar solo, the attention is all on White’s awkward declarations.
Elsewhere White’s musical and studio virtuosity shine through. The strings and lapsteel counterpoints on ‘Blunderbuss’ are intriguing, the dual guitar solos in ‘Weep Themselves To Sleep’ are engaging, as are the piano flourishes which tie ‘Hypocritical Kiss’ together; however White’s lyrics wreak havoc on an otherwise engaging song; “You don’t know how to read the look on my face when I say ‘yeah I’ve read that book to’”.
The album’s two final and most expansive tracks are the highlights. ‘On And On And On’ slowly weaves through guitar and piano tones and builds to a captivating crescendo as White muses “high and lonely I go/ but God only knows where I’m going.”
‘Take Me With You When You Go’ recalls the rolling drums of ‘Broken Boy Soldiers’, then shifts into a Jack White guitar-squall. It’s one of many such moments throughout the album. His guitar tone hasn’t changed in fifteen years, but he still manages to sound creative and possessed with his Airline letting loose.
There are endearing moments throughout, the pronunciation of the word nervous on ‘I’m Shakin’’, the childish self-aggrandisement of ‘Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy’ which evokes the naivety of The White Stripes. However, as is the nature of Blunderbuss, under the surface the song paints a different picture. The song reads as if Jack is paying out Meg for her decision to end The White Stripes; “you’ll be watching me girl/ taking over the world/ let the stripes unfurl/ getting’ rich singin’ ‘poor boy’.”
Jack White has always had a fondness for the number three, often referring to himself as Jack White III. Third Man records; red white and black. He proclaimed his songwriting based on three things: rhythm, melody and storytelling. His three bands were rich in all these traits.
Meg’s angular and primitive rhythms drove The White Stripes, along with Jack’s pop-blues melodies and childlike storytelling. The Raconteurs had a driving rhythm section, as well as affecting melodies and compelling, if simplistic storytelling. The Dead Weather asserted White himself as a rhythmic force, with abrasive melodies and abstract storytelling.
On Jack White’s solo debut, it’s a case of two out of three is bad. His rhythms are often engaging, with subtle percussive nuances which reward repeated listens. The melodies, whilst not as instantly gratifying as The White Stripes or as divisive as The Dead Weather, are good enough. The storytelling is what proves the albums downfall. Awkward metaphors and a generally resentful demeanour make Blunderbuss White’s least appealing music to date.
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