Early last year, Jack White told BBC Radio 4’s Today that he almost chose religion over music. “I was thinking at 14 that possibly I might have had the calling to be a priest,” he explained. “Blues singers and people who are singing on stage have the same feelings and emotions that someone who is called to be a priest might have.” There’s a lot to take away from that, and it gives a little context to his most lucrative venture thus far: Third Man Records. For the past decade, White has established an undeniably thrilling brand, one which has hit many a watermark and attracted one of the industry’s most dedicated followings. For the past three years, Third Man Records – the physical shoppe, venue, and headquarters in Nashville, TN – has hosted a variety of events, all cloaked in that White-endorsed mystery that makes it so alluring. Whether it’s a rare ’45 with Loretta Lynn or a unique one-off performance of White’s various acts, the black-bricked building is quite familiar with the multi-block lines of, more or less, believers.
It’s almost messianic what White has created. In an age where countless label conglomerates are dwindling and falling into the fiery pits of bankruptcy, the former White Stripes frontman walks about in crisp suits and that trademark smirk of his, surrounded by millions of cash-carrying fans, who are willing to scavenger for rare 7″ vinyl, even if they’re falling from the sky. If that weren’t enough for religious parallels, there’s something to be said of the Third Man Rolling Record Store, a truck that travels across the land, selling goods all under the Third Man umbrella. By the time it can even toot its horn, there’s already a mob scene surrounding it, almost as if there’s this divine that dwells within, because, really, the first thing everyone’s always thinking is: I wonder if Jack’s inside.
There’s a reason to focus on this, despite the fact that this is a review of his solo debut, Blunderbuss, because for the past three years, that’s really what White has been about. Following The Raconteurs’ Consolers of the Lonely in 2008, White’s remained behind the scenes, even throughout the two LPs for The Dead Weather. Instead, he’s become a figurehead, something bigger than a musician (read: Nashville Music City Ambassador), and his music now has taken on its own mythos, something even deeper than the mercurial days of Jack and Meg. So, with Blunderbuss, there’s that to keep in mind.
White doesn’t have a clear-cut agenda on Blunderbuss; instead, he’s just letting it all out. In a way, the record feels like a mental release of three years’ worth of ideas, as if he’s sat on his own proverbial crossroads, glossing over ideas for The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, or even another Dead Weather outing. It’s arguable whether he took the road “less traveled on,” but by going at it alone, he’s made quite a statement to his fans. What exactly is it? That he is his own army. A track like “Sixteen Saltines” proves that tenfold. Over crunchy chords, White spits out high school imagery (“She’s got stickers on her locker, and the boys’ numbers there in magic marker”) and a dollop of lyrical hooks (“Who’s jealous who’s jealous who’s jealous who’s jealous of who?”) that all feel stamped and ready to go for disc-jockeys everywhere. It’s a White Stripes track, but it’s not, and that’s sort of the lesson learned here.
It’s also a tad forced. Upon release, one could almost hear the digital sigh of relief across the ‘net, as if White needed to write a track that sounded like The White Stripes, to ease the tension leftover from last year’s dissolution. Its preceding single, “Love Interruption”, arguably a far more mature exercise in songwriting, didn’t receive the overwhelming reception “Saltines” did. That’s probably because with the Wurlitzer and the clarinet, it didn’t necessarily revive those feelings of seeing the Detroit duo. Ah, the predicament at hand for White. Do you shift ahead, look behind, or do a little bit of both?
Because he’s been the principal songwriter for each outfit, it’s hard to tell what he decided on for Blunderbuss. It’s a straight-up blues record– the Rhodes piano that bubble wraps opening track “Missing Pieces” sells that within 15 seconds– but isn’t that what White’s always accomplished? Whether it’s the minimalistic carnage of the Stripes, the lush instrumentation of The Raconteurs, or the mucky distortion of The Dead Weather, it all goes back to Mississippi Delta blues. White offers plenty of that here, and it all works as it has before: the Detroit prowler “Freedom at 21”; the shoulder-shrugging, rough love in “Hypocritical Kiss”; the roadside BBQ blazin’ riffs within “I’m Shakin'”; and the Stones boogy-ing “Trash Tongue Talker” all conjure up various faces in White’s armoire. However, there is a delicate underbelly to Blunderbuss.
White goes country. On the titular track, Fats Kaplin builds this Southern roadway with some fabulous pedal steel work, and it soars over Brooke Waggoner’s piano melodies, leaving White to croon his ol’ croon. When he harmonizes “Da da da da” throughout, his vocals just float. It’s beautiful and it really works. It’s a new edge to a sharp character, but it only cuts a few times on Blunderbuss. When he returns to this vibe again, it’s during “On and On and On”, a far more meditative track that could echo Wilco, but White tugs it all back. Now, if this is one trail White previously considered, he would be wise to pack lightly and venture forward, and preferably soon.
“And I know, that I can’t defeat you/But you don’t worry now, I ain’t going to preach to you,” he sings over the sentimental skip ‘n’ shake of “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy”. This is true. Despite the aforementioned religious connotations, White is hardly a preacher; instead, he’s just an intriguing character. People like characters, too, which explains his countless followers. The problem White struggles with on Blunderbuss, however, is that unlike Third Man Records, he isn’t building up a brand here – he’s transitioning one. He’s no longer The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, or The Dead Weather: He’s Jack White. And perhaps he’s always just been Jack White, but he still has to contend with those previous names and brands, especially if he ever plans on returning to them.
He’s a little scatterbrained on Blunderbuss, as if he’s still shaking up his past to move forward into the future, and as a result, Jack White represents everything Jack White has already accomplished. Not too shabby of a handle, but there’s just something slightly irritating about it, like there’s a secret that was lost, or just never there altogether. Does that really matter, though? Truth is, there isn’t a fan of his that won’t be waiting outside their local record stores for this release. So, technically, he’s already succeeded. Now, could you imagine if he had actually become a preacher?
Jesus take the wheel — or Jack.
Essential Tracks: “Love Interrupted”, “Blunderbuss”, and “Sixteen Saltines”
Feature artwork by Steven Fiche.