Time-tested tension, rockabilly inspiration drive ‘Blunderbuss,’ White’s first solo effort
Music Review | 4 out of 5 stars
Published: Friday, April 27, 2012
Updated: Friday, April 27, 2012 10:04
Sometimes, the strongest impressions lie in art’s subtlest moments of honesty, especially when they come from the utterly disillusioned and boldly organic mind of Jack White. In “Blunderbuss,” the listener can taste the overwhelming tension that White feels on the heels of the 2011 dissolution of his magnum opus, The White Stripes, whose reimagination and revitalization of blues rocketed the Third Man Records founder to superstardom.
Amidst the contributions of a spattering of session musician colleagues and former collaborators, White has put together his first solo record; a chronicle of his ongoing, uncertain effort to manage love with power, a struggle that has characterized his historic partnership with strong, independent women like Meg White and Alison Mosshart.
Though that struggle has boiled beneath White’s skin for decades, “Blunderbuss” never gets too abrasive, as some of his endeavors, like the group The Dead Weather, have in the past. With tracks like “Blunderbuss” and “On and On and On,” White murmurs his insecurity against smooth drum strokes and country-influenced sweeps of bass guitar: “But I have to choose what to do/ How to act, what to think, how to talk, what to say.”
The album’s strongest voice is shouted in “Sixteen Saltines,” where White declares without reservation his frustration with the oppression he feels from the women in his life: “Spiked heels make a hole in a lifeboat … I hear a whistle, that’s how I know she’s home.”
White is often rightly attributed with wedding the familiar with the innovative and “Blunderbuss” is a perfect example. Although only one track — a cover of Rudy Toombs’ “I’m Shakin’” (1960) — isn’t an original creation, the record plays as if White were modernizing covers of existing classics from across his eras of influence. Notoriously resentful of the way in which technological ease has stripped many popular songs of genuine emotion, White reaches deep into the past of 20th century blues, country and rock ‘n’ roll. Each piece has a personality, and it is left up to the listener to choose to either enjoy or resent the diverse voices. In either case, it is awfully difficult not to appreciate the craftsmanship with which White executes each track.
At times, however, the introverted singer seems to be disconnected from the audience. While the lyrics never feel completely out of place when paired with their respective melodies, some of them are simply too vague or obscure, presumably with only White truly understanding them. A prime example comes with the Elvis-reminiscent “Trash Tongue Talker,” wherein the hook laments, “Two monkeys jumping on the bed and one fell off and hit his head on the ground/The other monkey called the doctor said another monkey dead on the ground.” Though it feels organic in conjunction with the melody, the imagery just isn’t anywhere close to the sensory grip of the singer being lost in a “sea of sadness” or having his fingers “grabbed gently” and “slammed in a doorway.”
Furthermore, while the album succeeds in maintaining White’s distinctive low-fidelity, jam-session-in-the-garage mixing, it stops just short of the perfection that set apart The White Stripes’ “White Blood Cells” (2001). Some awkward moments sneak their way into, for instance, the otherwise confident and inventive “I Guess I Should Go To Sleep” where the listener is almost left longing for a second take. It feels as if the band were still working out the songs’ intricacies while the red recording light was already glowing.
But these few faulty instances, as well as the occasional lyrical detachments, are not defining. The “Blunderbuss” listener, at times, finds him or herself challenged to confront the same questioning and disenchantment with regard to the record’s sound that White finds himself faced with as a ’60s American boy lost in the 21st century. And the record is certainly not without additions to the Jack White treasure chest: on top of the hard-hitting “Sixteen Saltines,” White offers the piano-driven “Hypocritical Kiss” and the multi-dimensional finale “Take Me With You When You Go.”
Even when he stumbles, the opportunity to explore the world where Jack White finds himself uncomfortably at home and without the blur of his historic collaborative projects is a delicacy that a fan of any of those projects should savor. And for the longtime follower who hesitates when asked to find missteps in White’s history, “Blunderbuss” sends a message clear as glass: “I’ll be comin’ to play, I do it every day.”