To say that Blunderbuss is Jack White’s first solo album can be misleading. With all due respect to erstwhile bandmate Meg White (and she deserves much more than she gets), it’s no secret The White Stripes’ leader worked with an obsessive degree of detail, shaping every facet of that duo’s sound and image. Jack himself recently told the New York Times that The Stripes were essentially a cover band for his songs. White had no need to march off to the studio alone as some rebellion against collaboration. In fact, Jack’s many side projects — with Loretta Lynn, The Raconteurs, Danger Mouse, The Dead Weather, etc —seemed to be something like professional vacations taken alongside artistic kindred spirits. With Blunderbuss, White takes center stage, as maestro and prima donna, sharing control with no one and the spotlight only sparingly.
The White Stripes were defined by self-imposed limitations. For Blunderbuss, Jack White has loosened the strictures and brought in new voices, human and instrumental. Unlike Meg, these crackerjack musicians are able to follow wherever Jack leads. Blunderbuss, so effortless and confident, is a breakthrough for the tightly wound White. It radiates a sense of newfound liberation. Blunderbuss is outstanding, White’s finest and most consistent work to date.
Over the course of The White Stripes’ six-album lifespan, the duo evolved with fits and starts. Jack tippy-toed away from formal garage-blues on White Blood Cells and Elephant and then hit a bizarre stride on Get Behind Me Satan and Icky Thump. When White’s beloved guitar wasn’t completely absent, it found new friends: pianos, marimbas, mariachi trumpets, bag pipes. By the end of their run, The Stripes’ catalog included everything from hillbilly boogies to Celtic folk romps, striking torch ballads to ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll twists-and-shouts, fierce covers of Burt Bacharach and Patti Page to fever dreams about Rita Hayworth.
Blunderbuss completes Jack White’s artistic transformation by way of further, small variations. Piano melodies often arrive, not with a pounce, but in tinkling cascades (though the key tones on “Weep Themselves to Sleep” are interchangeably sprightly and maniacal). A knotty clarinet melody forms the center of “Love Interruption,” the album’s beguiling first single and its starkest left-turn. Song meters tend to swing and waltz (literally so on “I Guess I Should Go to Sleep” and the thrilling prog-epic “Take Me with You When You Go”), rather than march in brutal 4/4 rock lockstep. (“Sixteen Saltines” is the album’s excellent rule-proving exception.) For a full appreciation of Jack White’s increased sophistication, go back to De Stijl, The Stripes’ first knockout. The difference between then and now is startling. Blunderbuss makes that record sound downright juvenile. After all these years, Jack has become an artist in full, a tremendous talent with few peers in his generation, almost unrecognizable from the precocious Muddy Waters-worshiping punk who recorded “You’re Pretty Good Looking (for a Girl).”
Blunderbuss’ best tracks demand that you stop, listen, and experience them. Hell, the entire album demands it.
Don’t worry, though. Artistic growth aside, Jack White remains as petulant as ever. He has claimed Blunderbuss’ unifying theme is death, but to my ears the album is dedicated to the blues singer’s mortal enemy, his lady. When death does factor into Blunderbuss, it is White’s own. “Love Interruption” practically celebrates immolation: White imagines himself chewed up, spit out, put though the ringer, and ground to dust in the mill by his lover. On the delirious Little Willie John rave-up “I’m Shakin’,” Samson bolts from Delilah even though he knows her embrace is well worth the haircut. “No responsibility, no guilt or morals cloud her judgment/ smile on her face, she does what she damn well please,” White sings on “Freedom at 21,” drawing a provocative straight line from feminism to moral decay. His tormenter is set loose to rampage thanks to her “freedom in the 21st century.” Blunderbuss’ misogyny is so cartoonish that it wraps right around and becomes feminism. It’s Jack’ beautiful dark emasculatory fantasy. White comes off as a nasty 36-year-old boy scorned. His nemesis is as unfathomable as she is powerful. His best and only recourse is to tug at ponytails. What else can he do?
As much as I want to sing praises to Jack White’s expert musicianship (the sudden and ecstatic double-time interludes on “Trash Tongue Talker”) and inventive lyricism (for example, this verbal pretzel: “A romantic bust, a blunder turned explosive blunderbuss”), my admiration for Blunderbuss is rooted in sensation. Why overthink music this marvelous? Blunderbuss’ best tracks, such as “Hypocritical Kiss,” “On and On and On,” “Love Interruption,” and “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” demand that you stop, listen, and experience them. Hell, the entire album demands it.
And to think, Blunderbuss wasn’t even supposed to be. Jack White recorded these songs on a whim (!), after he had been stood up in the studio by RZA. In those moments when you find yourself missing The White Stripes, listen to Blunderbuss. And then send RZA a gift basket.
This album review is sponsored by Fox Searchlight’s ‘Sound of My Voice’, in theaters April 27.