Jack White - Blunderbuss

Jack White has always been an artist who thrived, in large part, because of all the constraints he imposed on his own work, like the analog-recording purism or the two-color design schemes. The White Stripes, his greatest musical project by some absurd margin, were almost a study in constraint. Jack himself might’ve been some lab-created hybrid of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, all demonic yip and head-wrecking guitar theatrics, but his excesses were always anchored to Meg’s simplistic drum thump, and that elemental rhythmic stomp was a huge part of what made them great. In recent years, he’s been granted an aging-star leeway. He gets to do whatever he wants, and what he wants is mostly to release weird limited vinyl curios and to record with a succession of random-ass collaborators. That’s been fine, mostly because nobody expected it to be anything amazing. But now he’s finally come with a for-real solo album, with White making all the decisions and not self-consciously limiting ay part of it, I was a little worried that he’d fall victim to his own biggest ideas. That’s not what happened with Blunderbuss, though. Instead, he made an album that sounds like it was knocked out over a lazy back-porch afternoon. Thank god.

Listening to Blunderbuss, I can’t help but remember that Jack White is someone who moved from the frozen northern Midwest to the mountainous Southeast. And as someone who recently made a similar move myself, I can attest to the sense of full-body relief that takes over your soul when you get settled in your new spot. You start to wonder why everyone else doesn’t live the same way. The best parts of Blunderbuss are the ones that sound like full-body sighs, like White embracing the sundazed pace of Southern living with the zeal of a new convert. The album also makes more sense when you consider that White has abandoned most of the rigors of rock stardom to become a gentleman of leisure, embracing whatever goofy hobbies make him happiest. In the past few years, he’s done some touring with the Raconteurs or the Dead Weather, but he’s mostly been spending time in his palatial Nashville mansion and his Wonka Factory-style Third Man HQ, and it shows. Blunderbuss, at its best, is a deeply relaxed album.

Another important thing to remember about Blunderbuss: White only started recording it on a whim when the RZA didn’t show up for a planned recording session. (Someone should put together a list of effects of events where Wu-Tang members didn’t show up to stuff. It would be long.) This wasn’t some long-planned career move; it’s a half-baked idea that White decided to see through. At 42 minutes, it’s more of a prolonged shrug from a ridiculously gifted musician and songwriter than it is a definitive statement. And I’d argue that it’s all the better for it. In White’s catalog, the album it most resembles is probably the White Stripes’ piano-and-marimba affair Get Behind Me Satan. And when I’m in the right mood, that’s my favorite White Stripes album.

Blunderbuss opens with a bunch of layered organ riffs, which slowly settle down into the Stax-informed groove of “Missing Pieces.” On the song, White does plenty of deeply impressive organ and guitar soloing, but it’s all done in the service of an unhurried shuffle of a song, the sort of thing that makes for ideal road-trip music. And that sets the tone for the rest of the album. Throughout, White gets funkier than I’ve ever heard him do, but he does it without making a big deal of it. The riffage on “Freedom At 21″ has a real bite to it, but White still gives it plenty of room to breathe. First single “Love Interruption” is an excellent Appalachian country-soul wailer that’s only grown on me since it first hit the internet. “Weep Themselves To Sleep” is a big acoustic stomp.

The LP only falters when White attempts to rock out. “Sixteen Saltines” sounded like a relatively thin garage-rock freakout until I saw the excellent video, and too many other songs here nod toward White’s feral rock past without approaching it. “I’m Shakin’” is a tinny early-’60s style raveup, and it does nothing for me. “Trash Tongue Talker” is strictly blues-festival fare. “I Guess I Should Go To Sleep” is a silly attempt at projecting old-school Grand Ole Opry aesthetics on a Jack White banger, and it doesn’t quite work. But even if I don’t love all these songs, they do help add to the album’s dynamic range, and they sound like White had fun recording them. Blunderbuss is, after all, basically a superstar vanity move at heart, and I’m happy to report that it’s done with way more craft and liveliness and ingenuity than it had to be. After a few listens, I wouldn’t put it near any White Stripes albums (except maybe the self-titled debut), but it’s still a deeply pleasant listening experience from someone who didn’t exactly owe the world anything. White might’ve had fun making it, but he still took care to make sure we’d have fun hearing it. Salute.

Blunderbuss is out 4/24 on Third Man/Columbia. Stream it at iTunes.

Comments (43)
  1. I’ve heard it and I agree with this evaluation. It doesn’t excite me but it definitely doesn’t suck either.

  2. I’m just glad someone finally wrote a song about those bothersome love interruptions.

  3. I disagree when point out the album is a “half baked idea.” Maybe it stated out that way but you can tell Jack took it more serious then that. Also I thought I’m Shakin’ was one of the best tracks on the album

  4. Seeing as you only used the word “blues” once in the entire article, didn’t even mention all the memorable tongue-in-cheek lyrics (or any of the lyrics at all), dismissed the kickass music White has made with Danger Mouse and The Dead Weather, and don’t seem to have an ounce of real soul in either your writing or your understanding of the southeast culture (“relaxed”? really? that word does not describe this album at all), I would recommend that no-one pay attention to this article.

    Plus, I’ve heard the album, and though it’s no masterpiece, it’s a hell of a lot better than this weak dismissal.

    • I wouldn’t exactly label this post a “weak dismissal.” While he admits its weakness compared to some of White’s other material, he still praises the record.

      Relax, my friend.

    • Amen brother.

    • Dude, if you even read the last couple of sentences you would know that Tom is pretty far from dismissing the album.

    • If you think this was a “weak dismissal” of the album, you need to take some reading comprehension classes.

      • I think he is pretty right on with saying the writer is somewhat dismissive… “I wouldn’t put it near any White Stripes albums”, “A half-baked idea that White decided to see through”, “More of a prolonged shrug than a definitive statement’. And also calling Sixteen Saltines “thin” and the other louder stiff “tinny”. It’s a great album and more realized than given credit for here.

        • Precisely!

          • It’s always weird when people get pissy with me for insufficiently praising an album that I really like. The album’s loose, casual sensibility is probably its greatest strength, and you clearly know nothing about the northerner’s adjustment to southeast life.

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          • Here, I did the work for you, baby Jordy:
            “…it’s still a deeply pleasant listening experience from someone who didn’t exactly owe the world anything. White might’ve had fun making it, but he still took care to make sure we’d have fun hearing it. Salute.”
            If you can read that, then you know that while it isn’t his favorite effort by Jack White, he still likes it. The way he ends the article is the BIG CLUE.

    • Agree 100% –well said.

    • Being a dick is not the best ad for your website, Jordy. And calling out an established writer is a Busch League, recent grad move.

      • If that were true, then we’d all still be listening to what Rolling Stone and Blender say and never forming our own opinions. “Established writer” is just a euphemism for someone good enough at sucking up to get a reliable job in the field — I know a LOT of writers and the “amateur” ones are no worse or better on average than the “established” ones. This was a poorly-written article and I said so. Maybe that’s “being a dick” to you, but I just call it “being honest.”

        Also, seeing as you how you had to go to some trouble to find my website since it’s not even on my Stereogum profile, I wouldn’t call my posts an “ad.” Thanks for checking it out, though.

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  6. I like the songs I’ve heard from this joint but now that I know the RZA was supposed to show up to the recording session, I’m kind of disappointed he didn’t.

  7. I’d like to hear the album from the guy who relocated to the northeast from the southeast.

    “Oh God, it’s so loud. Why is everyone so rude? Where’s all the sweet tea?”

  8. “In White’s catalog, the album it most resembles is probably the White Stripes’ piano-and-marimba affair Get Behind Me Satan.”

    Consolers of the Lonely seems a stronger touch-point.

  9. I agree that Jack White has been putting out some really weird releases in the last few years, (3RPM vinyl, wtf?) but I don’t agree with the way the writer seems to write off his more recent projects. The Dead Weather was completely random but it worked. Though I have much love for The White Stripes, I liked the sound of The Dead Weather a lot more.

  10. I hate it when people write off Jack White as only the dude who used to be in the White Stripes. The margin between The White Stripes and The Raconteur’s first album is far from absurd in my opinion! I doubt this writer will ever think anything Jack does with the rest of his career is any more than a superstar vanity move, and that’s way too common of an opinion.

  11. Tom, your review is on-point, if not a bit too kind. I love how reactionary posters here get if every album isn’t labeled “AOTY!!!!!!!” How about realizing that this is a decent, but ultimately underwhelming release from a well-regarded musician? Some of the tracks are “good”, none are “great”, and there are more than two outright misses. As the author points out, White didn’t “owe” anyone a great record. He can afford to make the record that he wants; he did it; it’s just “okay”.

    Jack White, “the dude who used to be in the White Stripes” wrote songs and played guitar like he was hungry enough to steal Howlin’ Wolf’s dinner. Jack White, the dude who everyone knows because he used to be in the White Stripes but earned enough cred to not have to really be into making music that resonates, is not nearly as hungry. His music betrays this fact. Kudos to him for remaining singular, but equal respect to a music critic who can provide an objective viewpoint on an album.

  12. Raindogs, all I’m saying.

  13. Jeez! The album had a total opposite effect on me. While I never bothered to make it through a White Stripes album (mostly because half the songs on the albums were half assed and boring), I have had this one on repeat since Sunday. I don’t think ‘Sixteen Saltines’ sounds “thin”…in fact I think you need to get your hearing checked if that thought even crosses your mind. Lyrically this a solid album. Standout lines in “Sixteen Saltines”, “Freedom at 21″, and “Blunderbuss” made me pause and reconnect with the aging Jack White….and I’ve got to admit when he ‘New-r-vous” it makes me smile.

    It’s refreshing to see him backed up by a solid group of musicians too. Liberating even.

    Don’t let this review steer you away. The album is VERY good and has me excited for more material from Mr. White. If he wasn’t a “Rock Star already”, this album would do the trick!

  14. but srsly tho, I enjoyed this record better than much of the other critically-acclaimed music released this year.

  15. I invited the RZA to my house for brunch one time…he didn’t show up…my juevos racnheros came out really good. Coincidence?

  16. jack white and the white stripe are overrated

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  18. i am excited i listened to it on itunes i wasnt thrown back in amazement but so far this year i havent been by too much except sleigh bells dev gotye and fun lol but i didnt stop the album like i did with lana del rey it just doesnt do much for me sadly the highlights of the album really are the singles to me it almost sounds like he was strongly influenced by the black keys on this thing

  19. Listening to Blunderbuss now…and it sounds like all of his other projects. It’s great, but I guess I was expecting something a little different since this was the big solo album. But I guess he’s got a defined style and stays true to that.

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