This is a moment of catharsis for many fans. Getting to this point seems so logical, yet took years. Jack White will release the very first solo album of his career this week. With a title like Blunderbuss, White’s certainly tapping into his knack for resurrecting the past in ways palatable for the 21st century. This album plunders from all his past styles, blending them into something that is familiar to long time listeners yet completely unique in an increasingly impressive body of work. But just how did we get to this point?
After the extensive Canadian tour chronicled in Under Great White Northern Lights and a U.S. leg of the Icky Thump tour, the White Stripes went dormant. Never one to slow down, Jack released a second album with the Raconteurs and toured extensively for that. Then there’s the creation of a new band, The Dead Weather. This new project dominated his time for the next 2-3 years, releasing two albums in quick succession and touring for both. All the while people wondered…what happened to the White Stripes? Finally, in April of 2011 what everyone feared for years was now official: the band was no more. This broke many hearts (mine included) but soon everyone’s mind turned to the future. What was next? More Raconteurs? Even more Dead Weather?
In the meantime, Jack’s built a vinyl record empire in the form of Third Man Records, releasing singles, albums and live recordings from some of the biggest names in indie rock as well as world-renowned artists like Wanda Jackson and Jerry Lee Lewis. In his catch-all building there’s a studio, storefront, photo room and live venue, which has seen the invention of some of the most unique pieces of vinyl to ever be created. This wasn’t some vanity project, it was him taking control of his destiny and exciting a new generation about the physical medium of music. Against all odds he’s successfully sold physical media in a time when everything in the music business is tanking. He’s kept it fresh and downright strange and people love him for it.
Jack White’s Sixteen Saltines
What about making music? He hasn’t been at the forefront of a band in years. So when a solo album was announced people were excited to finally see him out in the spotlight again. But which version of Jack would we get? Lead single “Love Interruption” was a cold shower for many Stripes fans: acoustic guitar strums, gorgeous female backing vocals and an almost-country twang. While a great track on its own, what did this mean? Had the guitar hero gone soft? Almost as if to silence these fears, around SxSW, second single “Sixteen Saltines” came out and everyone was ecstatic. This song rocked. Hard. With its loud, crunchy guitars and vocal histrionics it’s the closest he’s come to sounding like the Stripes since 2007. Perhaps skewed with a bit of Dead Weather influence in the form of filthy keys and strange, dissonant chorus of “who’s jealous of who?” but it’s classic Jack. These two songs articulate the extremes between which Jack hovers on the album.
This variety makes for a very dynamic album with emotional peaks and valleys not quite as present in some of his other bands. To do this man’s love of the medium justice, the album was reviewed on vinyl. The A side of the album is an emotional roller coaster beginning with the understated organ of “Missing Pieces” where White gradually notices more body parts missing and tells the listener, “when they tell you they can’t live without you they ain’t lyin’…they’ll leave and take a part of you with them.” The tale of a bitter and lonesome person reflecting on rocky relationships continues through “Sixteen Saltines” and especially the utterly brilliant rocker “Freedom at 21” where he says “cut off the bottoms of my feet, make me walk on salt.” Such visceral imagery as he then tells you, “she does what she damn well please.” But then the bitterness takes a tender turn on “Love Interruption” where he basically says in beautifully coupled contradictions that this is exactly the sort of strong reaction he wants out of love. The quieter contemplation continues on the mostly acoustic countrified-ballad “Blunderbuss” as he details a frowned-upon relationship. “Hypocritical Kiss” continues in a similar vein to the previous song but ratchets up the tension as his story of self-righteous indignation reaches a boiling point when he asks, “who in the hell is impressed by you?!” Side one ends with the haunting “Weep Themselves To Sleep” where rising piano notes accompany pounding drums and the emotional stutter of his electric guitar to create an epic ending the first half of this opus.
The B side is where tension is released and more of the playful side comes out, opening with “I’m Shakin,” the lone cover of the bunch, it’s a classic R&B doo-wop number complete with a chorus of female “oohs and ahhs,” providing a hip-shaking foundation for his gritty guitar lines to weave in and out of. “Trash Tongue Talker” continues the vintage feeling with a saucy Rolling Stones swagger and “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” feels like an old bluegrass standard with a tune so catchy it won’t leave your head for days. The lyrical theme of sleep returns in “I Guess I Should Go To Sleep” where the melody sways like a folky juke joint number sang at last call. It returns to more of the emotions of the first side where he says he can’t say anything right. Between three bands, a record label and two children, it’s no surprise the man thinks of sleep so much—he probably gets precious little of it.
Taking a cue from the last song, “On and On and On” brings the listener closer to a mellow sleepy feeling with a melody that lies somewhere between the Beatles and Wilco. And despite all the bitter sentiment and frustration with females, the final song on the album is where he practically begs a woman “Take Me With You When You Go.” It plays out with fiddles and quick-fingered organ fills before launching into vocals layered with strange vocal effects and another of his patented squealing, poignantly stuttered guitar solos, only to circle back to a chorus of female “oohs” as an organ note lingers and slowly fades.
It makes sense if you think about it. The sentiments of the album, the all-female backing band (some of the time anyway) and the tradeoff between his guitar and these cooing vocals exemplify the confounding contradictions of the myth and man that is Jack White. With towering female figures in his life like Meg White, Karen Elson and Alison Mosshart, it’s no wonder he feels so conflicted about his relationships and their dynamics. Like it or not, this album is a lyrical, visual, and musical reminder of the cliché’ male adage; “women: can’t live with them, can’t live without them.” Despite how you feel about that saying, it has created some of the most emotionally stirring songs of Jack White’s career and possibly one of the best albums of 2012.
Jarad Matula | Senior Writer