The demise of The White Stripes still lays heavy on the hearts of both fans and the man, even after all this time. But Jack White’s Blunderbuss finally puts a candy-cane bouquet on its gravestone and seals the tomb firmly – just by being what a Stripes record could never hope to be. The full-color character immersion present on the man’s debut solo LP, recorded at White’s Third Man Studios in Tennessee, establishes a tri-colored middleground amidst the bands with which we associate him – namely the White Stripes, the Dead Weather and The Raconteurs – and transcends them all with a razor-sharp singular vision and staggering versatility that defies any of his group designs.
The dripping-charisma twinkle-eyed frontman strut we’ve missed as Stripes fans is the album’s welcome mat, via canter-paced opener Missing Pieces. The guitar tones and keys are a familiar skin to settle in beneath Jack’s breathless nursery rhyme architecture, but the basic-beat framework of old has been replaced with a guest-peppered band engine in a fully laced groove that threatens to steal its own spotlight – and often follows through, something we hear much of throughout the album, in spectacular design and a new spaciousness. Halfway through, a Rhodes piano frenzy dissipates, giving a final-warning descent through the last verse: “Sometimes someone controls everything about you / And when they tell you that they just can’t live without you / They aint lying, they’ll take pieces of you / And they’ll stand above you, and walk away / That’s right, and take a part of you with them”
The explosive jolt of Sixteen Saltines (with a badass Gummo-meets-Lord-of-the-Flies video to boot) has all the spastic magnetism of the most incendiary Elephant composition, and stretches out into a thundering groove under a cascading melody before losing all control – or so it would seem. It’s quite difficult to imagine this mad alchemist actually letting go of the wheel – to master the appearance of the freakout, well that’s another art entirely.
The devil’s in the details, however, and we already know Jack’s perfectly at home in the red. In the liner notes of Blunderbuss, there is a picture of the Third Man logo, only with one of the three figures standing outside from the others as a hawk flies overhead. Small symbolism, subtle accentuations – they’re anything but passive accidentals from a man whose entire public presence has been filtered through a meticulous aesthetic. And so we find endless nuance on the carousel, in the subtle idiosyncratic bursts – such as the “ah ah ah ah” at 1:06 on Saltines. These are the reasons for which the rewind button was designed. To backtrack and savor that electric rush down your spine in those moments of trap-door greatness.
White’s predilection for a modern Orson Welles mystique is the thread networking the seam that pulls the blues-demon / folk romantic / Rock vagabond / Old West saloon spittoon anthems together into a mix of, frankly, shockingly fluid cohesion. But nothing prepares us for the sinister creep and tumbling percussion cauldron of Freedom At 21. Suddenly our ideas of a “Jack White record” seem quaint in light of this monstrous personality, this damnation of modernity that embraces the man-eaters of the era vulgaris, enabled by culture and corrupted by mean-spirited self-absorbtion. Hey, we’ve all been there, right?
“Cut off the bottoms of my feet, make me walk on salt,” he skitters in a demonic falsetto as Autolux’s Carla Azar – Jack’s new ain’t-no-secret weapon – frames a downright freakish beat swarm. “Take me down to the police and charge me with assault / Smile on her face / She does what she damn well please…”
Suddenly, Jack’s entirely on your left, seething right in your ear while the deceptively simple menace-riff propels you forward into the beat, moves your entire body, grabs your hips… and then the double vocal kicks in and drives straight into the solo, deeper than you’ve gone before. You may feel a bit violated. Headphones will come in handy for the alien mecha-hornet deathmatch dual solo.
The title track strolls through an old fashioned Georgia peach breeze, gorgeous acoustics and pianos creeping in an earnest 4/4 waltz as Jack lays out his most poetically descriptive lyrics in memory; a tale of forbidden love indulged, accentuated by Fatz Kaplin on pedal steel and Brooke Waggoner on the ivory. The song paints a sweet-surrender snapshot of caution being released into the wind, of love conquering false certainty and tethered obligation: “So selfish them, would be their cry / And who’d we be to argue? / Doing what two people need is never on the menu.” The tantalizing thrill of the moment is conveyed in sweet-surrender excellence, Kaplin’s gliding strings pulling like a sensually inevitable current. Reckless romantics, take note of your new anthem.
Ever conflicted but endlessly committed to the magic of the heart (a lyrical theme from the very start), White romanticizes the emotional tug of war on the piano-and-acoustic march of Hypocritical Kiss, embraces the regret but leaves no room for doubt as to who holds the real blame: “And who the hell’s impressed by you?” he demands. “I want names of the people that we know are falling for this.”
The second half of Blunderbuss sports inflammations of an Old West barroom vibe that cuts through cinematic drama (Weep Themselves To Sleep) and upbeat charmers Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy, adding a vintage dynamic that’s always been shorthand for a misplaced timepiece such as White. The cover of Rudolph Troombs’ I’m Shakin’ kicks the 50s jukebox with live claps, shakers and Ruby Amanfu (of Love Interruption feature) on backups, while the tone shifts to an uproarious stomp on Trash Tongue Talker, channeling Billy Joel at his most youthfully boisterous genius before a bombastic finish. Picture Jack drunk in front of a crowded ballroom at 2am, deep in a groove, collar & cuffs loose, throat running ragged as he pushes the room for the last thrust of energy they’ve got.
By contrast, the gorgeous lullaby of I Guess I Should Go To Sleep features lovely bygone-era harmonies among White and vocalists Ryan Koenig and Pokey LaFarge, between anxious-creep piano flurries. On And On And On, meanwhile, features a positively infectious melody and lead line that digs in like a dream you can’t remember if you had last night or eight years ago. Under the rainfall of brushes and gently consuming throbbing buoyancy of the bass, fragile harmonies just above a whisper lament the meaning of existence itself, a personal fit of existentialism. It’s a beautiful purgatory.
Rounding the final bend, Take Me With You When You Go is a gang-vocal backup party with Ruby, Laura Matula and White’s ex Karen Elson lending breath. Carla’s fully immersive percussive dynamic carries the jalopy down the road, coupled with Jack’s piano flurries – until a false finish at the two-minute mark, when a rush of keys tells us the fun’s not over, the fuzz guitar takes charge and shit gets righteous. A fiery heel-clicker solo and shimmying vocal – a thickly-harmonized melody volleying with Ruby – through the final verse sends us off smashingly, a rollicking celebration and parting kiss.
There has never been an album quite like this kaleidoscope of disciplined soul & prowess, or more of a promising beginning down a new musical path for the nucleus of Third Man. We can psychoanalyze the road, the reasons and the rationale, we can marvel like stargazers at the Wonka-meets-Welles architecture or we can just spin the black circle and celebrate.
Because goddamnit, Jack’s done it again.
Pick up Blunderbuss at JackWhiteIII.com.
Front page cover photo by Jo McCaughey.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.