Rock & Roll revivalist, guitar god, hipster idol, semi-pop star…however you frame it, Jack White has been one the defining figures of the past decade in music, probably because he just seems to get along with everyone. His music is tough but infectious. His cool is unattainable, but he never wants to leave anyone out. Though he’s been involved in three prominent bands (one more prominent than others), taken part in several collaborations, and produced dozens of records, everything Jack White touches feels like Jack White. He seems a veritable popcorn machine of musical ideas and ingenuity.
This all sounds great, but it really leaves our hero in a tough spot when it comes to pursuing a solo career. After all, to most people, the White Stripes might as well be called the Jack White Project. With his first foray into the world of the singer-songwriter, White has, against all odds, managed not only to create something fresh but to produce some of his best work yet. “Blunderbuss” is a ballet of geometric toy-piano figures, sometimes-manic rhythms, and strikingly simple melodies that fails to leave us wanting.
From the grey-scale self-portrait album cover to the sweet acoustics of the title track, this is a record more personal than anything he’s ever put out. No matter how well we think we know him, there are more than a few things left to learn. Imagery of exhaustion and sleep are scattered here and there, and softer spots seem to hint at White’s increased understanding that slowing down is important for reasons beyond toying with his audience’s emotions. That’s not to say he’s forgotten how to tear it up. “Sixteen Saltines” hits you like a baseball bat gone projectile and barely gives you enough time to take a breath between monstrous power-chord slashes. Songs like “Hypocritical Kiss” show he’s still got some of that trademark spite.
The bare-bones garage pop aesthetic remains, but moments here cross the threshold into epic. Has Jack White been appreciating old school prog-rock? Glistening keys on tracks like “Weep Themselves to Sleep” seem to blast through the imaginary walls of the chambers that bind them and emanate on to forever. The album closer “Take Me With You When You Go” feels like Zeppelin stripped of glam (this is a complement). Arrangements are sharp, almost pointillist, stressing the importance of the cool, empty space between jabbing, synchronous notes. Should I mention that the guitar work is unsurprisingly stellar?
Be warned: this is a slow grower, but give it time and you may start to feel that the White Stripes were just a very entertaining stepping stone. The Grammy Awards may be sickeningly narrow in their field of vision, but if Jack White walks away a winner this year, I can’t say I’ll be unsatisfied.