This piece was jointly authored by Michael Smith and Jeremy Dobson.
So let’s imagine for a minute that you’re Jack White: singer, guitar player, pianist, songwriter, producer. Hell, you’ve even starred in a few films (at least according to a quick look at Wikipedia, and if it says so there then it must be true). You’ve sold millions of songs and albums worldwide in several different bands; you’re an all-round musical talent, rock star, icon. You might have thought that you’d be quite pleased with yourself, generally content with everything life has brought you. Unfortunately though, money, talent and fame can’t buy you love, which probably helps to explain Blunderbuss.
You see, while White’s personal life is infamously difficult to decipher, Blunderbuss a surprising insight into his psyche in the wake of his divorce from model and singer Karen Elson. From the sound of things, he’s not exactly infatuated with the idea of relationships, or indeed women in general. To dismiss Blunderbuss as a breakup album does feel like something of an oversimplification, however.
The emotional pain White has experienced – is still experiencing – does come over clearly in the lyrics. The opener, Missing Pieces, states, “Sometimes someone controls everything about you… And they’ll stand above you and walk away… And take a part of you with them,” while the first single, Love Interruption, opens to, “I want love to roll me over slowly, stick a knife inside me and twist it all around.” But I can’t help feeling that there’s something White is holding back from the listener. It just feels strange that, while one would presume she is the “inspiration” for many of these lyrics, Elson actually provides vocal accompaniment for a few tracks on the album.
It all leaves me thoroughly confused, which makes the brilliant music all the more comforting while listening. Weep Themselves to Sleep interweaves jagged vocals with a flowing piano, accompanied as ever by White’s trademark distorted guitar, while the title track slows things down slightly, introducing strings and an acoustic guitar. White’s knack for creating a memorable melody also remains. Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy is a prime example, with a basic repeated tune that you will be whistling endlessly after a few listens. Sixteen Saltines is the closest this album has to a White Stripes track, and luckily (or unfortunately depending on your perspective) Meg’s absence doesn’t detract from it. In the same vein as Seven Nation Army and The Hardest Button to Button, White takes a guitar riff and rolls with it, creating an intense and instantly anthemic track.
I couldn’t help but feel a little apprehensive when approaching Blunderbuss. In The White Stripes, Raconteurs, and Dead Weather, White has proven himself as a band member and songwriter, but I always felt a niggling fear that any solo project might lack the same strength of conviction that all those bands showed. There should never have been any doubt in my mind. Blunderbuss is an example of moving lyrical expression and a further refinement of the musical formula that White has been developing for over a decade now. White isn’t breaking any boundaries here, and he still hasn’t managed to recreate Elephant’s timeless brilliance, but he has succeeded in creating an enjoyable and thought-provoking listen.
Favourite tracks: Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy, On and On and On, Love Interruption
Least favourite track: I’m Shakin’
Jack White sings: “I’m the man with the name, hip eponymous poor boy…”
Indeed, it is true – from this rare moment of self-reflection during the innocent but telling album track Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy – that the conquering theme of Jack White’s latest album is, as ever, that particular brand of relationship angst that turns him into a “poor boy”. This time, however, the troubles come not through the children’s book imagery of the mythical “unfurled” White Stripes; instead, a more mature and serious Jack derives them from his recent divorce from Karen Elson, a musical separation from Meg White, and his eternal blues.
His latest album, Blunderbuss, named after an 18th century “elephant” gun, contains all of Jack’s famed cognitive dissonance and relationship angst. Although five years on from The White Stripes’ final album, his signature blues have matured and his guitar is more restrained. The paradox of his first solo effort, however, is that only now he is on his own is his sound at its fullest. He employs any instrument needed to make the recorded track match the sound in his head, from the steel pedal slide guitar on the Neil Young-like title track to the ragtag piano that opens I Guess I Should to Sleep. It seems that moving his musical empire to Nashville has liberated him.
From the near-profound single Love Interruption, Jack’s caustic guitar tones (see 2003 song Ball and Biscuit for that) have largely been substituted for violent lyrics: “I want Love to … stick a knife inside of me and twist it all around.” Likewise, during opener Missing Pieces White sings of ex-spouses literally leaving relationships with his limbs: “I looked down and my legs were long gone.” Has Jack gone from disillusionment with love to outright masochism? Or maybe the ever-present women in his songs are more villainous than ever. Either way, these macabre metaphors mean Jack must not be faking his blues – they seem all too vivid to have been conjured up.
Likewise, in Hypocritical Kiss, you could be convinced that Jack White is arguing with himself: “And who the hell’s impressed by you? I want a name for people that I know who are fallin’ for this.” It’s almost too self-deprecating to bear. The theatre of Jack White’s own internal argument is made overly dramatic by the Vaudville piano, which, unfortunately, overrides other instrumentation. Similarly, Jack’s angry monologue in the song may help you forget about his playful and spontaneous side.
However, the album’s carefree moment is the cover, I’m Shakin’. It allows Jack White to flex his musical muscles: the scaled riff, the gospel howls, the solo squeals and muffled vocal that candidly shout: “I’m Noivuss.” (The song will make you want to emulate the famous Pulp Fiction / John Travolta and Uma Thurman dance.) It’s a rare moment of early 60s fun equalled only by the other single, the garage-rock Sixteen Saltines – the brash four chord riff is bound to draw out anyone’s inner air guitar (the one that probably hasn’t been used since The White Stripes’ days).
Throughout most of Blunderbuss, Jack has jauntiness in his vocal delivery. The playful, near-freestyle approach is notable in songs such as Freedom at 21 and Weep Themselves to Sleep, both of which contrast fantastically the dark themes he sings of. In Freedom at 21, Jack White delivers embittered lyrics such as, “Smile on her face, she does what she damn-well please,” and uses every weapon of his vocal arsenal to deliver them.
Although the new album will justly be considered by critics and audiences alike as an evolution rather than a revolution of Jack’s folky sounds of Americana, Jack does become somewhat progressive in the final two songs of the album, especially within the many acts of Take Me with You When You Go. I wonder if this counts as prog-country?
Nevertheless, Jack White, whether in a progressive or nostalgic mood, is always impressively authentic. Even the dud songs will surprise you on further listens. Blunderbuss reaffirms White’s urge to seem both genuine and melancholy in spite of his mainstream appeal, something he once again accomplishes with idiosyncratic and eccentric charisma.
Favourite tracks: Sixteen Saltines, Love Interruption, I’m Shakin’, Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy.
Least favourite tracks: Hypocritical Kiss, Trash Tongue Talker.