Jack White takes aim at trash-talkers and hypocrites on Blunderbuss
As soon as the White Stripes’ demise made heartbreaking headlines last February, hype for a Jack White solo album started feverishly brewing. Now that the damn thing’s finally here, we can all stop praying for that Raconteurs reunion. But don’t get too comfortable—Blunderbuss is not exactly an easy-listening affair. Since half of it can be summed up as an acrid letter bomb to the spectres of White’s recent past, the album is perfectly suited to its title, which, at its roots, means “thunder gun”. So why then does Blunderbuss have the same effect as a deflated birthday balloon?
As unfair as it is, comparing White’s solo debut with the White Stripes’ canon is unavoidable. The album even continues Jack White III’s career-long obsession with the number three, clocking out at 13 tracks in total. And with a few exceptions, including “Sixteen Saltines”, which is Elephant-ine short-fused simplicity, Blunderbuss hearkens back to Get Behind Me Satan, the opener “Missing Pieces” establishing this feeling straight away with its keyboard-laden bluesiness and pained, idiosyncratic lyrics.
But almost immediately something seems amiss. While “Love Interruption”—a candid love song so masochistic it might have been penned in blood—is a Blunderbuss stand-out, it’s preceded by “Freedom at 21”, a great showcase for White’s effortless fretwork and command of badass rhythms that’s tainted by what sounds like anti-feminist whining: “Charge me with assault/A smile on her face, she does what she wants to me/’Cause she’s got freedom in the 21st century.” Coming from a man whose built his career on successful creative partnerships with women, this is both upsetting and perplexing.
Swooning violins and Old South mellifluence follow on the title track, recalling the country drawl but also the disappointment of the Raconteurs’ second album. And after “Hypocritical Kiss”, its venomous bite softened by trills of piano, comes the stormy theatricality of “Weep Themselves to Sleep”. Punctuated by one of White’s trademark soulful solos, the bombast of this piano-drums jam actually suits our guitar hero well. It’s easy to picture him in a kooky top hat and cape on some cabaret stage, singing, “No one can blow the shows or throw the bones that break your nose like I can.”
A faithful cover of Rudolph Toombs’ ode to lovesickness “I’m Shakin’” sees White gooning, crooning, and proving that he’s most engaging when he doesn’t take himself too seriously, as he does on the aptly named “Trash Tongue Talker”. Honky tonk romp “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” is both old-fashioned and refreshing, its childlike innocence providing respite from the album’s mostly dour disposition and sounding like a tongue-in-cheek note to Meg and the White Stripes: “You’ll be watching me, girl, takin’ over the world/Let the stripes unfurl.”
After “I Guess I Should Go To Sleep”, which is a bit of a sleeper itself, is another slice of White’s softer side, “On and On and On”, its hushed, sweet-and-sour vocals bringing White’s younger self to mind. And to cap it all off is the Doors-y “Take Me With You When You Go”, which almost tips into loungey folk-jazz territory until White’s fuzz-toned guitarwork significantly spices things up.
Blunderbuss is far from a bad piece of work. But fans who’ve gotten to know White for reinventing his sound with every undertaking, even if ever so slightly, might be underwhelmed by this album’s play-it-safe traditionalism. Even though that’s sort of the point—as Jack said himself, it’s basically self-indulgent self-expression—the album has a lot to live up to. White’s innate talent and wit fail to shine as brilliantly here as we’re used to, and so Blunderbuss is only really a shadow of the stature he’s earned thus far.