For as long as he’s been a rock star, Jack White’s been a curious web of contradiction. He slathered The White Stripes in gimmicks to get people to focus more on their music. (But hey, it worked like gangbusters.) He claimed 2003′s Elephant lamented the “death of the sweetheart” in American culture, then a few months after that album dropped, he pled guilty to pounding Jason Stollsteimer’s face. Now, as he’s releasing Blunderbuss, his first solo album, he says this to NPR:
“When you put something out there into the world, there’s all these words you don’t want to hear, that you hope people don’t say…anything that starts with ‘re’ — like retro, reinvent, recreate — I hate that. It’s always like living in the past — copying, emulating.“
Which is funny, because while Jack makes vibrant, fresh-sounding music, he’s always had one foot firmly entangled in the extremely retro roots of American blues, folk, country, rock, punk, and R&B. And on Blunderbuss, he’s arguably more old-timey than ever. His 21st Century guitar fuzz barges in only sporadically. It’s all over the very White Stripes-like garage stomper “Sixteen Saltines,” as well as the very Dead Weather-like mad science of “Freedom At 21.” But elsewhere, aside from a riff here or a solo there, that’s about it. No, despite the fact that its title refers to a kind of rifle, Blunderbuss is not generally loud or explosive. It rocks hardest in “Sixteen Saltines,” which is track 2, then it spends most of its time jazzing, waltzing, and boogeying.
Sure, it’s a little disappointing to hear Jack spend most of his time not rocking the hell out, but Blunderbuss is no disappointment. It just takes a while to pick up steam. It opens with “Missing Pieces,” which doesn’t exactly grab you the way opening tracks like “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground” or “Seven Nation Army” or “Icky Thump” do, but at the very least, it’s a fine tone-setter. Musically, it tells us Jack’s in a mellower, jazzier mood, and thematically, its love-as-leprosy lyrics tell us his usual bitterness now comes with an extra dash of danse macabre. Alas, the song also foreshadows how middling much of the album’s first half is (except for “Sixteen Saltines” and “Love Interruption,” two pretty good tracks that also happen to be the album’s first two singles).
Then with “Weep Themselves To Sleep,” Blunderbuss finally starts living up to the lofty expectations. The melody’s mostly monotonous, but Jack pumps it with gallons of swagger. The drums would make Meg White proud, the way they sucker-punch the groove. Jack’s solo slaughters, especially on headphones, since actually it’s two solos played simultaneously in separate channels, which sound like a couple of Tesla coils deciding whether they should fuck. The real hero here though is Brooke Waggoner’s piano lines, which thrust the track from the stratosphere all the way up to the thermosphere. In fact, I’d say Brooke’s the undisputed breakout star of Blunderbuss. I mean, we already knew Jack was pretty good. Sweet-and-salty back-up singer Ruby Amanfu’s also pretty good, and I wouldn’t mind hearing her solo stuff. But Brooke is something else throughout this album, knitting together classical, goth, honky-tonk, Dixieland, Nina Simone thunder, and Vince Guaraldi Peanuts jazz.
The second-side hot streak continues with “I’m Shakin’,” which aims to be “All Shook Up” for 2012, and it’s thrice as fun as that sounds. I’m gonna play this jam at my wedding and watch all the boomers twist with the millennials. The slinky-piano-blues of “Trash Tongue Talker” is just as familiar and almost as fun. “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” must be a gentle jab at Meg- a song to a girl who just wants to sit around while he continues to take over the world, singin’ the blues (“I’ll be using your name…let the stripes unfurl“). But the track’s bouncy Kinks-via-New Orleans vibe suggests it comes from a playful, good-natured place one could only share with your ex-drummer/ex-wife/psuedo-big-sister.
Blunderbuss begins easing to a close with the good ol’ simplicity of “I Guess I Should Go To Sleep” and the breeze-blown confusion of “On And On And On.” Then just when you think the last track “Take Me With You When You Go” is about to shuffle out the door like “Take Five,” out of nowhere Jack brings the rock back for one last encore. And at the end of the day, behind all the bile and swagger and funky Zeppelin, there’s still a scared little boy in there. He bitches about not wanting to be labelled “retro,” even though he so obviously is retro, so maybe he’s masking some deeper fear. Like the fact that he hates being alone, and now he’s got to make it out there just as “Jack White.”
But whatever yo, I’m no psychologist. Just a dude who’s been following Jack White for over a decade now. All I know for sure is that I really like Blunderbuss, and this kid oughtta do just fine by himself.