It’s hard to believe it’s taken Jack White, the modern conscience of American rock and roll, 15 years to “go solo.”
In many ways all of the bands he has fronted - The White Stripes, Raconteurs and The Dead Weather - and all of the projects he has produced or appeared on have felt like Jack White solo projects when you get right down to it. His is the kind of presence that has a way of taking over a room whether he means to or not. But now, with Blunderbuss in hand, it’s clear that White has been studying, learning, experimenting and woodshedding. Like Clapton in the ’60s he picks up elements here and there, forces himself to create in community instead of in a bubble, and then boldly goes wherever the heck he wants.
It’s perfect that he decided to name his record after a short-barrel, muzzle-loaded, 18th-century shotgun that pirates used to spray bits of scrap metal, pebbles, lead and glass all over their enemies. White has always been a bit of a pirate and he makes no bones about his penchant for recycling blues, gospel, country and rock bits into his own brand of musical shrapnel. Elements of everything he has dabbled in are represented. The White Stripes’ bombast, the Raconteurs’ discipline and the pervasive darkness of The Dead Weather are all present, along with ideas that probably came to him while working with Loretta Lynn or Wanda Jackson. He stuffs it all in the barrel, adds some lighthearted goofiness and then takes very loose aim at the Grim Reaper and pulls the trigger.
From the crows all over the artwork to the thinly veiled lyrical references, it’s clear that this is a record about death: the death of relationships; the death of self; the death of vision; and the death of the body. With intermittent snarls, quips, winks and deadpan stares, White is not afraid to tackle the big subjects in his own way. His Catholic background tints his explorations with a gothic Christian hue as he obliquely explores the darkness in his own heart, the hypocrisy he sees in others and the persistent belief that there must be somewhere better than here.
Not that his take on God is always positive. On “Sixteen Saltines” - a notably cryptic rant - he spits out a confused meditation on a girl (or something she represents) by finding the very darkest part of the Noah story: “Lord knows there’s a method to her madness, but the Lord’s joke is a boat on a sea of sadness.” His brutal proficiency with a blues riff and his theatrical delivery often overshadow his true brilliance and diversity as a lyricist, but for those with ears to hear this Blunderbuss is ready to blow.
One gets the feeling that White rarely says exactly what he means. From his wonderfully cryptic persona to this latest batch of songs, White is always a bit of an actor. Not altogether unlike Bob Dylan’s white-faced Rolling Thunder Revue carnival barker or Dr. John’s voodoo priest, White is conjuring here for certain. He manages to craft an album of songs that at once sounds thrown together and meticulously designed and executed. His sonic palette includes piano - electric and acoustic - as well as complicated rhythms, Americana strings, strange backing vocals and his own razor-wire guitar chops. The recording sounds completely analog and the whole thing feels like it could have been made in a haunted house falling apart right next door to a church cemetery. Somehow, as with just about everything he has set his hand to since The White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan, it feels fun, spooky and important at the same time.
It is said that White was accepted to seminary out of high school and that he seriously considered becoming a priest. Supposedly he had just gotten a new amplifier and didn’t think they’d let him bring it to school. My guess is that Jack White is what you get when a religiously minded Generation X kid studies at the altar of rock and roll. Fascinating stuff here, and he seems to just be getting started.
What Do You Think?
- Have you heard Blunderbuss? What did you make of it?
- What is Jack White trying to communicate with his musical/theatrical personas?
- Do you find resonance in the "gothic Christian hue" with which Jack White paints?