Front Page Reviews & AIR
Jack White - Blunderbuss
Alright, I’ll break it to you. I broke down (and I was listening to “Breakdown” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the time).
I got an iPhone.
I was the last of my friends, and almost the last roommate in my Cast-of-Friends
I think I know why we love the simple log-in process, which we now hold in the shiny palms of hands. It is because now more than ever we clamor to be a part of something. We want to understand, to be a part of something Awesome, Sick, Radical, to be in on it,
I’m not sure, and you’re not sure, but you know what? It doesn’t matter. Because none of this is real. We struggle with reality these days, and much has been made of our increasingly inane quest for recognition, precisely angled through our tiny keyboards, but I think there is more to it than that. We’ve gotten to the point where “the real” terrifies us, titillates us, and fascinates us. As much as we love logging in to our compartmentalized, separate versions of ourselves, it’s a tease. We desire more—even if that urge is subconscious.
And this is what the layered, ambitious album Blunderbuss has done for us. Jack White, who infamously does not own a cell phone, has given us a fat slice of instant-classic Rock & Roll, replete with textures of Americana and blues and punk and adorned with the weird, quirky touches that have now become synonymous with White’s arrangements. The red carpet was rolled out months ago for this LP, but White has cracked the code of expectation. Part of the reason for this is the individual strengths of the players he has assembled, and part of it is the rule that White lives by: he does what he wants, it seems, not what is best for his career (ahem, except maybe releasing on Columbia and not his own Third Man Records label). He has found a way to exist outside of the tired layers of musical hype, and still be hugely influential—a quality he shares with good friend Bob Dylan, of whom White once said, “I have three fathers: my biological father, God, and Bob Dylan.”
There are nods to Dylan here, too—not necessarily Blood on the Tracks Dylan, though much has been made of this being White’s heartbreak record, based on his recent divorce and trendy divorce ‘celebration’—but more so as if White has found himself near Highway 61 Revisited, or even drifting into Modern Times. This record is masterful in its combination of relics of an antique world—the cover of “I’m Shakin’” by Little Willie John, 1960, (originally written by Rudolph Toombs), the rattling piano flourishes that summon The Band, romantic references to guns with flared muzzles and heart-shaped lockets—with the trappings of the modern technological world and all the bullshit that fills our inboxes at an alarming rate.
When “Love Interruption” was released as the first single, with its raw acoustics and tremolo-infused warbling by Ruby Amanfu, who strikes me as a creepier version of a young Emmy Lou Harris, it seemed that White had decided to tone everything down—the guitars, the stacked Marshalls, his screeching pleas for mercy—in favor of a bizarro-world Peter, Paul and Mary routine. The song is stripped-down and organic, akin to the Stripes’ “We’re Gonna Be Friends” or “You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket.” But one of the strengths of the album is that gems like the cut-throat second single “Sixteen Saltines” exist next to the Beatles-esque psychedelia of the title track, “Blunderbuss,” which is kept afloat by winding pedal steel and upright bass by Bryn Davies and Fats Kaplin, respectively. “Hypocritical Kiss,” is reminiscent of the White Stripes pro-feminism tune “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As Your Told),” but is far more layered. Lead-off song “Missing Pieces” has a little “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” to it, but it, too, is more textured and haunting.
White is most at home here in songs like “Hypocritical Kiss,” where he scolds “you don’t know how to read the look on my face when it says, ‘yeah, I’ve read that book too.’” This is White at his best; he is toying with us. Isn’t this what he’s always done? Manipulated his image, combined fact and fiction, engaged us with myth and lights and color? It would almost be frustrating if the music wasn’t so tightly wound. Listening to Blunderbuss is an experience that grows more expansive with each spin of the record. “Freedom at 21” is as explosive as they come, with its trip-hop drum beat and taunts like “two black gadgets in her hand, that’s all she thinks about, no responsibility, no guilt or morals.” White might as well be telling me to put down my iPhone and pick up my guitar. And he’s right. I should.
One of the best songs, “Weep Themselves to Sleep,” has White angrily lashing out “no one can blow the shows or throw the bones that break your nose like I can,” and then lapsing into a burnt-out guitar solo that dissolves into fuzz. Another standout, “Take Me With You When You Go,” feels like two songs in one, and recalls the Racounteurs, but also psychedelic pioneers Love, when the divergent melodies finally come together as one. Not surprisingly, the first chorus slides smoothly over the rhythm of the second. It seems that everything with White is both unpredictable and well-executed, and has been throughout his career. I once saw him run through the crowd at PPAC in
In the past, critics have dismissed White’s eccentricity as gimmicky—plastic guitars, recording all in analog, claiming Meg White was his sister when she was, in fact, his ex-wife—but this record is the opposite of a trick. All of White’s prodigious talent is on display here, and nothing is faked or feigned. The guitar work is understated and organic—we almost wish he took one song completely over. But the unexpectedly Clapton-clean divergence White provides in “Missing Pieces” fits the song adroitly, and the howling, spinning, effects laden cyclone that he adds to the vortex of “Freedom at 21” leaves no questions about his instrument of choice. “Sixteen Saltines” also finds White’s guitar howlin’ for us, throwing down chunky power chords and his trademark screeching bends. Regardless of the guitars he might be playing now, this is still the Jack White who is obsessed with the blues, the mystique of the song, and overall—creating a distinct sound. As he told the New York Times Magazine last month, “There aren’t many things left that haven’t already been done, especially with music. I’m interested in ideas that can shake us all up.”
On Blunderbuss, White is definitely willing to stretch. “On and On” misses the mark, failing to stand out, but “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” and “I Guess I Should Go To Sleep” are raucous, catchy, and campy, with the former assuring us that White isn’t taking himself too seriously:
I guess I’ll take off my shoes
Head upstairs and then watch the news
That’s another way to lose
These walking blues
I guess I’ll take off my shoes
Upstairs, upstaged and upset
Keeping quiet is probably my best bet yet
Cause I ain’t managed to do the best thing yet
Well, I guess I should go back to bed
Or perhaps he is taking himself too seriously, attempting to place his lyrics and melodies into a distinctly raw and separate space, away from the auto-tune of the mainstream? That is part of the myth here, I guess—no one knows exactly what White is thinking. His whole career has been built on paradox, and he wants it that way.
White’s lyrics on Blunderbuss have already been beaten to death, which is fitting, because White is in turn locked in adolescent pubescent fantasy; a la “Sixteen Saltines,” and left “dying on the ground,” with his mouth split open and a knife stuck in him and “twisted all around,” a la “Love Interruption.” White has mused that after writing the songs, death emerged as a main theme, and there are also numerous references to a relationship gone wrong, (and a hell-bent woman in spiked heels who is out to get him), but above all, he seems to be having fun here. In “I’m Shakin,” he cops a cartoonish accent when he shudders, “I’m nervous, yeah, I’m shakin’ and jumpin!’” But the greatest evidence of White’s good-time vibe might be the aforementioned “Take Me With You When You Go,” which is akin to a high-speed cruise on a motorcycle sans helmet. It is gripping, beautiful even, but the tension comes from the anticipation of the sharp curve. And, it comes with no warning—a chunky blues solo that disorients us even more readily.
And the band? The band almost steals the entire show away from White, for better or for worse; a combination of the all-male and all-female backing bands that White has begun touring with. Carla Azar’s drumming and Brooke Waggoner’s
In the liner notes, White writes:
song yet sung kept coming out loud
with the flag hung, think of this—
how can I get you to think of this song?
It’s some trick to make it stick to the ribs
dig open the dirt from the drum to the nails
truth gets the boost from the wind and the sails
You won’t find that kind of abstract lyricism on your iPhone. Or, maybe you will. But either way, this is an album that is mean to be played in completion—not in snippets, not in songs—and absorbed willingly. Be grateful there are still musicians like Jack White out there. While you spend your days tweeting about your trip to the mall, they’re spending their days trying to write something that will last. They’re trying to write the songs that will stick to your ribs.