April 27, 2012

Freedom at 21

I've been a fan of Jack White's for almost a decade now - I'll never forget being 15 and hearing The White Stripes for the first time. My fandom continued throughout my formative years as White changed hats (figuratively and literally) with The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, and although his weird dalliance with Insane Clown Posse scared me a bit (was this how the good part of Jack White's career would end?) I've still been very hopeful, albeit nervous, for the release of his first solo album, Blunderbuss. I should've known that he wouldn't disappoint.

Blunderbuss came out a few days ago on Columbia Records, rather than White's own imprint Third Man Records; he actually commented at length on his choice (surely an enviable deliberation) in a recent interview with NPR's Bob Boilen:
"[Columbia's] history is amazing. They're the first record label. The very first. They invented the album. They've got an incredible history. So I always thought if I did a solo record it'd probably be a great idea to do it with them and I just hadn't done one 'til now... I really didn't want to do this album a disservice. I ain't got nothing to prove about being indie or anything like that."
It's clear that White doesn't have anything to prove about being "indie"; he's made a fascinating and idiosyncratic existence for himself, since his early days of being an upholsterer and a member of various (many of them now illustrious) garage bands in Detroit. White's always seemed to have a tight grasp on the big picture, and although he's reluctant to talk about his personal relationships, and he admits to "growing up with a lot of Catholic guilt, and a lot of punk rock, hipster guilt in the later years", his musical career has always come across as something that's been crafted with a large amount of control and a shit ton of focus. Blunderbuss is a strong, tight collection of songs that exude this sense of control, along with serving as the first time White's released an album under his (faux) solo moniker.

I often feel that solo albums (by musicians that were formerly in full bands) fall flat; they come off as tedious and extremely self-involved, and tend to serve as more of an auditory diary than a real album. My reservations about this immediately dissolved with the opening track on White's solo album, "Missing Pieces" - frolicking organ starts the song and is soon joined by White singing, "I was in the shower so I could not tell my nose was bleeding". He continues to lose body parts as the otherwise upbeat song progresses, and it ends with him crooning, "Sometimes someone controls everything about you / and when they tell you that they just can't live without you / they ain't lyin', they'll take pieces of you / and stand above you / and walk away / and take a part of you with them." Compare this sentiment with the album's closing track, "Take Me With You When You Go", and we could speculate as to whether or not White's singing about his recent divorce from model/singer Karen Elson, or the official dissolution of The White Stripes, but we'd never really know.

With the second track, "Sixteen Saltines", White continues to flex his varied musical muscles, this time pulling out riffs that, more than anything else on the album, remind me of classic White Stripes material. The lyrics revolve around a less-than-compassionate woman that White seems obsessed with: "She doesn't know, but when she's gone I sit and drink her perfume". The hard-hitting drums and simpler rhythms in this track are complemented perfectly by the following song, "Freedom at 21", which opens with my favorite intro on the album - subtle layers of uniquely syncopated drum rhythms softly build while a deep, growling organ holds it down, until they're joined by guitar and White begins singing about another cruel woman who cuts off the bottoms of his feet and makes him walk on salt. With all of the lyrics about hard-hearted women, you'd think White was jaded, but in fact he's the opposite, at least in relation to gender:
"If you have twenty guys in the room and you just bring in one girl, you change the entire mood and everyone plays differently. That's what happened in The Dead Weather and that's why I think we became such tight friends... The four of us wrote in that band, I think, because of her [Allison Mosshart] and her attitude."
However, White's opinion when it comes to love itself might be a tad different, if you take the lyrics of "Love Interruption" (the first single off the album) seriously. The track starts out with, "I want love to / roll me over slowly / stick a knife inside me / and twist it all around", which may sound a bit horrifying, but his intentions are made more clear by the chorus, "I won't let love disrupt, corrupt, or interrupt me anymore" - a sentiment that I think everyone feels at some point in their life, though I've never heard it expressed in a song before (but honestly, rarely have I come across a songwriter with the lyrical genius that Jack White possesses).

Some other highlights on the album: White's blistering, sped-up cover of Little Willie John's "I'm Shakin'" (White's always been good at choosing songs to cover), the funky, dirty-ragtime track "Trash Tongue Talker" (chorus: "You broke your tongue talkin' trash and now you're trying to bring your garbage to me?"), the self-deprecating "Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy", and the aforementioned closing track, "Take Me With You When You Go" - some sort of fusion between pop-rock, alternative jazz, and a tiny amount of country, the song really breaks it down at 2:05 with a sudden burst of grimy guitar and of course, lots of jamming. All in all, White's managed to use his skilled musicianship and engineering knowledge to make a really solid album. Blunderbuss is something White should definitely be proud of; it's certainly renewed my interest in seeing what he does next.

Buy a copy of Blunderbuss here, and if you like, check out White's record label (with its mind-burningly beautiful physical location and "rolling record store" truck) here.

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