Monday, October 8, 2012

Jack White: Blunderbuss

As I see it, my job is as follows: Explain why, if you like the White Stripes, (or Jack's other projects,) you might like this solo album. And why, if you didn't like the White Stripes (or Jack's other projects,) you might like this solo album. That's the objective, and as a reviewer, it can be so easy to get caught up in the minutiae of Jack White's career, his transformations and mutations and identity games, to get distracted from the fact that there's music going on here. This is my third start. This is too good of an album to get turned around looking at the scenery.

Of those two groups, the longtime fans will be the easiest to convince. It isn't that the music sounds much like those other bands. "Sixteen Saltines" bears a passing resemblance to "Blue Orchid," and there are traces of Stripes album tracks here and there, but that's about it. It's just that I think Jack has earned a certain amount of goodwill from his fans. His brand, with them, is that of a rock eccentric always finding some new toy to play with 'til it breaks. It's the best kind of artist-listener relationship, where trust, and maybe a bit of patience, are rewarded with consistent quality that never forsakes individuality, never goes sterile on the altar of "giving the people what they want."

The opening track, "Missing Pieces" is built on a tensely-pecked electric piano, soon joined by guitars and drums to put it in a real funky groove, while Jack wails lyrics about being taken apart, bit by bit, by people who claim to love you. There is a theme of bitterness running through this album, like on the simmering "Freedom at 21," or the fiery "Hypocritical Kiss."

That's good news for both the faithful and non-believers alike, because this album is far from an excuse for Jack to indulge in all those things that might have turned you off his other work. The music of Blunderbuss is gorgeous and ornate and very disciplined - after all, this is Nashville, where music is serious business (isn't it everywhere?) There's no art-rock abstraction here, it's all classicist, rootsy boogie and clean arrangements. This reaches its apex on "Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy" which seemed like a silly, gimmicky song, until I realized people were actually buying the Zac Brown Band album with "The Wind" on it, and now I get it. It's a testament to my personal aphorism that the best country music is often not found in the Country Music section. There's the pretty, nervy, weary "I Guess I Should Go To Sleep," and a few absolutely gorgeous tracks like the title track, and the slinky, bass-led "On and On and On." Not only is this not a one-man show, Jack brings along more musicians and more instruments than he's ever had on a record before.

But of course nothing Jack does is pure and simple by the rules. It has flashes of style and self-assertion that you will surprise you if you're just looking for something mellow to listen to. One of the best tracks is "Weep Themselves To Sleep," where Jack brags on himself as a guitarist, in hip hop form, in a song based around a piano riff. It's a song where Jack sounds eminently like himself, with his raggedy, squawky vocals intact and underscoring the message of the song, and combines so much of the greatness of the album in one place, with pristine piano work, a little dramatic flair and yes, one of those staticy sounding guitar solos.

In my reviews for Joel Plaskett last week, I noted that an album can be personal without being confessional. The one thing I know about Jack White, for what it's worth, is that he uses his music as a constantly shifting representation of himself: not a confession, but a demonstration of his interests, tastes, and attitude. He includes a cover of "I'm Shakin'" that fits with his originals because he's absorbed the old blooze so well, and because the lyrics sum up his worldview as succinctly as anything he could write himself.

It's a gift, to have an artist this far into his career who still has this much to reveal of himself. It doesn't feel like he's changed, only that he's worked out a new way to be himself. Like any piece of artwork, it requires the artist to make choices about what he wants to say about himself and the world he's in. He has taken on all these elaborate musical companions and bent them to his will in a way we've never heard from him, or anyone else, before. That's worth a look from anybody. And I can't heap enough praise on a track like "Love Interruption," which like the album overall, seems so familiar, and so right, and yet so fresh and exciting to hear.

Buy this album now: iTunes Canada // iTunes USA // //

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