Review: Boarding House Reach by Jack White

Boarding House Reach is held together with sticky tack and steel and its intentional madness falls like a house of cards.
Publish date:
Boarding House Reach

On Boarding House Reach, Jack White III would rather be anything than boring. Perhaps to make good on the prophecy that his music is closer to hip hop than stale rock, perhaps to prove once and for all that he is superior to the Black Keys, perhaps just because he is somewhat bonkers, in any case, Boarding House Reach is alternately brilliant in its blueprint and maddening in its execution. It’s the kind of Jack White record that sounds good when discussed but not when listened to. Lack of cohesion is not a term that typically implies anything other than a lack of creativity in criticism rather than the recording and release of a record but Boarding House Reach is held together with sticky tack and steel and its intentional madness falls like a house of cards.

Advance single “Connected By Love” was an omen. Other advance singles – “Seven Nation Army”, “Fell In Love With A Girl” and “Lazaretto” have all been absolute bangers and the best taste of the record. In contrast – “Connected by Love” is a somewhat gospel influenced jam that could have been a b-side to Get Behind Me Satan. Its organ solo that morphs into a guitar solo is a slick production trick but can’t save a weak chorus melody and hamfisted attempt at sing along ideology. “Why Walk A Dog?” is as easily answerable as it is painful to sit through. Dogs get walked because they, like most animals prefer to be outdoors and our homes and apartments don’t offer them the running and defecating space they require. Its slow burn, diet funk groove doesn’t make it any better. The multi-measure intros to verses think they are mysterious, but they are just wasted space. Thankfully it keeps itself brief with only two and a half minutes of wandering misery.

“Hypermisophoniac” has the electronic wankery of a synthesizer just unboxed as it attempts to tell some sort of confusing bank robbery tale. “Ain’t no runnin’ when you’re robbing a bank” isn’t a revelation, or true, or progressive in the story. Isn’t there only running when you are robbing a bank? Isn’t that the point? Wouldn’t that make for a compelling story? “You sip your drink, and you stop to think,” White croons before the final rhyme of the verse gets gobbled up in electronic wizardry, perhaps because he didn’t have anything to say? Maybe Jack should have done that to all the lyrics in the song. The most painful and polarizing, “Ice Station Zebra” is a more clear attempt at rapping than Win Butler continually denied last year. Jack White raps with the cadence of a high school driving instructional video attempting to appeal to an “urban” market. There is also a theremin solo. And bongos. But I will say the “We’re all copying God” coda is a nice left turn. Too bad the song is too flighty to return to its best moment. It descends into a rhythmic bridge about stamps and singing in stereo.

Other misfires abound – “Everything You’ve Ever Learned” is a post-society tribal romp while White scream talks motivationally empty phrases. “The one who prepares is never surprised” is as untrue as it is empty. In the past, these little mini tracks have been cute ("Passive Manipulation" from Get Behind Me Satan); they have been minimalistic and successful ("Little Room" from White Blood Cells); they have even been his best songs (you know which one right?) (ok fine, "We’re Going to Be Friends"). Here they serve as distractors from distraction. At least, disorienting, at most, egregious detours from his true strengths.

That’s not to say the record is all duds, there are a few jams. “Corporation” plays to all of White’s strengths – strong drums layered under Zeppelin inspired riffs. The chant “Who’s with me?” crushes as it echoes. Its one of the records only memorable hooks. When he sing preaches “I am thinking about starting a Corporation” it would perhaps be more effective if he hadn’t already successfully done that? Also there is a two measure scream solo and its fantastic as it fades into a guitar solo that White lectures over. Give me a whole record of this psychosis doubling down on its own anxieties.

“Over and Over and Over” was a White Stripes song turned Jay-Z failed collab turned strongest song here. Its paint by numbers Jack, all of his best stuff. A choir repeated vocal hook, his best riff in years and that bridge, his intense squealing and frantic bellowing just bring to mind all the reasons Jack is a festival headliner across America. That’s all before the final 45 seconds which contain both the riff repeating, a bongo break, the vocal hook, several solos in different guitar tones and gospel backing vocals. It’s a banger, and again, why couldn’t we have just had a whole record of this stuff? There’s more strong material than the classic sound reprised, though. “Get In the Mind Shaft” is an electronica funk journey full of vocoder and Beck-esque squeaky window percussion. Sparkling pianos only accent an experiment that actually worked, and well, crescendoing with reverberating voices on the horizon. 

You can only make a record like Boarding House Reach if you shoot for the moon. Jack White missed, but in the best possible way. As weak as this record is, its extremely entertaining. Of all the bad records from popular artists in the past few years, Everything Now, Painting With, Songs of Innocence, Jack White has created the best kind of bad record, one that is packed full of ideas like a children’s book that got struck by lightning. Whether you love or hate Boarding House Reach, one thing is obvious, it is not boring. C PLUS