Review Summary: Jack White opens up, rifle in hand.
It’s a bit surprising to think that Blunderbuss
is Jack White’s first proper solo album, coming as it does at an age where people start to think less of what’s coming next and more of what’s been left behind, especially given White’s indisputable figurehead status. Few would consider acts like the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather as bands that just happen to have Jack White in them, and fewer still would associate the White Stripes with Meg. Yet here Mr. White is, at age thirty-six, releasing an album that turns that iconic, rock-god-on-a-pedestal status on its head and in the process unshackles him emotionally in a way that has to be incredibly freeing and, for his audience, particularly engaging. Throughout White’s career arc, from his role in pushing garage rock back into the mainstream conversation to becoming one of rock’s most enduring purists to becoming the type of distinctive, singular personality that marks the transition from rebel to institution, he’s always sounded detached to me – I could always appreciate what White brought to the table, but it rarely spoke to me on an intimate level. Blunderbuss
has no problems hitting a visceral note again and again: it’s his freest record, musically speaking, and in its bloodstained lyrics, which run the gamut from cautionary to vindictive to self-loathing, it opens up a side of White that previously has been impenetrable, wrapped up in his own self-mythologizing persona as he was.
There’s nothing opaque about opener “Missing Pieces,” which starts off with White realizing he has a nosebleed and wondering if he has a disease within the first few couplets and only gets worse from there. “I woke up and my hands were gone, yeah / I looked down and my legs were long gone / I fell forward with my shoulder, but there’s nobody there,” White howls, and if it’s a bit of an obvious metaphor for the loss of a relationship, then Blunderbuss
is perhaps the most straightforward break-up record in recent memory. “Someone controls everything about you / and when they tell you that they just can’t live without you / they ain’t lyin’, they’ll take pieces of you,” White sings near the end of “Missing Pieces,” and it’s as good of a thesis for this record as any.
White is in full take-no-prisoners mode here: at one point he equates love to twisting a knife in his guts (“Love Interruption”); at another, he tells off a lover and leaves no room for an argument: “you broke your tongue talking trash, and now you try to bring your garbage to me / I got some words for your ass, you better find someone else off the street” (“Trash Tongue Talker”) – you can almost see the sneer on his face as he spits into the microphone. There’s the recent divorce from singer/model Karen Elson and the early retirement of Meg White, easy signposts to point to here, yet Blunderbuss
is more universal than any of White’s personal problems. “No responsibility, no guilt or morals cloud her judgment,” White describes an unidentified female on “Freedom at 21,” and this is the warning that Blunderbuss
so liberally dispenses – Beware the Siren, Beware the Heartbreaker. Yet wrapped up all of this is White’s own guilt: his headstrong, irrepressible desire; how he wants “love to walk right up and bite me” on “Love Interruption;” how he ends up “throwing up, a lifesaver down my throat” on “Sixteen Saltines.” White remains eternally complicit in his own angst. It’s the typical two sides of the coin, his unflinching look at his own romantic failures adding a fulfilling dimension to the warding off of the she-devil that White seems perpetually engaged in, and it’s one anyone whose had a relationship turn on them can sympathize with.
It’s an intimacy that is bolstered by Blunderbuss’
forays into R&B and boogie-woogie shuffling amid the usual touchstones of blues and classicist rock ‘n roll. A song like the playful, jaunty “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” rightfully sounds more like the product of his fellow Raconteur Brendan Benson, yet White sounds comfortably at home in the carnival-esque tinkling of the keys and the jostling bar room atmosphere the song conjures. In its thinly veiled lyrical takedown of Meg, it continues a theme of Blunderbuss
in shifting moods and amorphous soundtracks, adding another emotional layer to a highly emotional album. While “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” is undoubtedly retaliatory, that festive mood those bouncy keys create cements the song as a celebration, not just mean-spirited revenge: “And you’ll be watching me girl, takin’ over the world,” White croons, defiantly getting in the last word. Other songs are more direct, like first single “Sixteen Saltines,” whose trashy stomp is perfect for the “lipstick, eyelash, broke mirror, broken home” characterization of its female antagonist. Through it all, White doesn’t waste a note, and his dexterity is something to marvel at.
That wonderfully halting lurch of a solo in “Weep Themselves to Sleep” – could it fit in any better with the song’s triumphantly ascending piano melody? Could the wistful titular track be placed anywhere other than where it is on the track listing, providing just the needed breather between the low boil of “Love Interruption” and the strong, major-key piano of “Hypocritical Kiss?” Could Jack White have released a record that so better encapsulates his diverse talents than Blunderbuss
, one that deftly handles an archaic cover (“I’m Shakin’”) as easily as it does the schizophrenic nature of final track “Take Me With You When You Go”? That last track is a fitting end for the album – it starts off as a beseeching two-step, lightly accented with backing vocals and careful drum brushes before doing a 180 on its apology with an insistent riff and a bone-rattling guitar solo. It’s a nice little capsule review of what’s come before, uneasy and raw and slightly unhinged, and it’s just what White has always been: hard to pin down. That final refrain, though, where White begs “take me with you when you go, girl / take me anywhere you go,” is disarmingly forward and even has a touch of the hopelessly romantic, continuing the lyrical unveiling of the man behind the curtain. White has always stood for a certain ideal, a reminder of rock’s history and the careful construction of a persona that has always gone hand-in-glove with a proper Rock Star. On Blunderbuss
, it’s as bewitchingly difficult as it’s always been to tell where White is going, but Jack White the person has never been as close to his audience as he is here.