Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: 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.

Tags: Jack White