When approaching an album, sometimes it is just impossible to ignore the context surrounding it. Occasionally (just occasionally) there is an album released where to understanding the context remains key to the understanding of the record. Jack White‘s first solo release Blunderbuss is one of those records. Having engineered two divorces in the past twelve months (one to his wife of six years and the other to his band of over a decade, The White Stripes) it might be easy to look at this record as White’s very own version of Blood On The Tracks (the product of a man he referred to as ‘God’, incidentally). However, just casting it off as a “mere breakup” album would be doing a man who has captured our imaginations more than any other in the last decade a grave disservice.
Jack White has always thrived on mystique (he looks like a cross between Edward Scissorhands and Kevin Khatchadourian) and this made The White Stripes an ambiguous and puzzling band. White has never been one to wear his heart on his sleeve publicly and with this new record you get a sense that whilst the breakups with Karen and Meg are occupying his thoughts, he is more than willing to create enigmas for his audience to solve in the knowledge that they never will. He is a complex, intellectual songwriter; his solo album does nothing to resolve any questions you may have had regarding Jack.
What the album does do, however, is rank with some of his best work. In truth, The White Stripes had probably gone stale by the time they split up what with Jack proceeding through bands at an alarming rate. The Raconteurs brand of post-garage rock was the closest he’s come to matching his work with his first band, but their appearance of an everyday beardy pub-rock group didn’t fit Jack’s biography and fanbase. Likewise, The Dead Weather arguably failed to create a sound worthy of the legends within the band. Blunderbuss in essence is all Jack.
Opener ‘Missing Pieces’ starts the record as it means to go on. The six-note piano riff makes the platform as White grumbles, “I was in the shower so I could not tell I was bleeding” and then goes on to show that the song is a metaphor about relationships and marriage, with the protagonist awakening each day finding he has fewer body parts than the last until he is left paraplegic on the floor. It is dark, ominous and humourous – what White does best. ‘Freedom At 21‘ starts with a crazy battlefield-like drum beat with White guitar-riffing and spitting the words “Cut off the bottom of my feet, make me walk on salt. Smile on her face, she does what she wants to me” over it. A dig at Meg who he claimed “completely controlled The White Stripes”, perhaps?
Most of the album sees White singing in a funk-falsetto and it blissfully works, giving the notion that is some of his best vocal work to date. ‘Love Interruption’, the lead single, again builds on the notion of love “disrupting and corrupting” making White “want to grab my fingers and slam them in a doorway”. It’s dark and masochist but it makes White so lovable and weird. The record may not hold any avant-garde music revolution (it sticks to White’s formula of stripped-back garage rock) but it does encompass a surprise in a Little Willie John cover ‘I’m Shakin’ that finds Jack raucously backed by a band of females, including his ex-wife who he claims he’s on good terms with. Odd, eh?
While ‘Sixteen Saltines’ is a tale of how children are taking up his world nowadays, there’s still time for one masterpiece in ‘Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy’. He sings about “using your name” (he got the name ‘White’ from Meg) and then talks of “You’ll be watching me girl, take over the world, let the Stripes unfurl” and it is the best piece of lyricism on the record. The words and deep and cutting and beautifully eloquent.
With the depth of character he is now portraying and trying to mask at the same time, White remains one of the most brilliantly enigmatic people in music. The words on this album may come with a playful defensiveness but the message is biting and haunting – this is truly what White feels. Whilst Blunderbuss is never quite the era-defining album we once got from White, it is as personal and raw as we have ever seen from him. It’s a startling but brilliant change, and White’s debut solo record shows that he is still, truly, one of a kind.
Blunderbuss is out now on Third Man Records
Dance Yrself Clean
James Daniel Rodger