Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Jack White Boarding House Reach

Even when Jack White didn’t know, he knew. White and his White Stripes were still playing little rooms when he wrote “Little Room.” It’s the shortest song on the album that ensured that he’d be in bigger rooms for as long as he wanted. White wrote that song before the garage-rock explosion, of which he’s probably still the most prominent beneficiary, and he couldn’t have known for sure that it would turn out to be prophetic. We were still deep in the Bizkit Era, after all, and there was no outward evidence that the public really wanted to hear grimy, greasy, yelpy garage rock. But White must’ve known he had something good on his hands. Some people are just confident like that. And so he outlined his future predicament in a few quick, crisp lines: “When you’re in the bigger room, you might not know what to do / You might have to think of how you got started, sitting in your little room.”

White has been thinking about it. He’s been thinking about it so much. He’s been overthinking it. He reissues all his old stuff constantly, on different color vinyl platters and in various limited-edition anachronistic editions, like it’s a hobby. He’s built himself a weird little invite-only room where, like, Cloud Nothings can drop by whenever they’re in town and make themselves a 78 RPM live record that nobody will buy. He’s building compounds in Nashville and Detroit, like some kind of manic axe-wrecking cult leader. He’s manufacturing baseball bats. (He’s also watching Jordan Peterson YouTube videos, which is not a good sign.)

White could’ve been collecting Teslas and injecting cocaine into his eyeballs, doing the things that aging-out rock stars tend to do. And maybe he is doing those things; we don’t know. But he’s also putting serious time and attention into imagining what his role as a post-everything rock star should be, in reworking the image of rock stardom into his own image. He’s trying to solve an unsolvable problem, giving it everything he’s got. Good for him. The problem is that he’s forgetting the most fundamental part of how he got started, sitting in his little room. He’s not writing good songs. He’s not even writing songs. It’s becoming a real problem.

Remember how Jack White used to write songs? He was so good at it. Fuck. Think about White Blood Cells. Think about the first four songs of White Blood Cells — glam-superstar haughty riff wreckage into Violent Femmesian strummy naif-folk into explosive psychedelic drool into adrenaline-blasted garage-punk, all of them bursting with riffs and hooks and melodies and personality and passion. That’s gone. That’s been slowly disappearing for many years, but the most fart-around moments of 2014’s Lazaretto, White’s last album, were good for a hook or two. Thirty seconds after listening to Boarding House Reach, White’s new one, you will not be able to hum one single moment of one single song. The man who used to write better songs than anyone else in rock music can now apparently just not be fucking bothered.

Instead, the Jack White of 2018 is into cut-and-paste grooves. At least on paper, that’s a pretty interesting transition. White, a longtime devotee of all things analog, has given in, at least a little bit. He’s now messing around with ProTools and guitars that are designed to be easy to play. This has all activated another side of White’s brain. The tracks on Boarding House Reach will suddenly dissolve into Santana-esque conga breaks, or Detroit house thuds, or squelchy high-stepping organ-funk vamps. White has assembled a crew of session-player assassins, and they’re all happy to follow him wherever he wants to go, fleshing out his goofy ideas with absolute precision and fealty like they were set designers on a Kubrick movie. But White is wasting their time. He’s wasting ours, too.

Once a strict and exacting song-construction perfectionist, White now seems to regard structure with absolute contempt. There are multiple songs on Boarding House Reach where he gives hysterical, nonsensical spoken-word sermons (“I’m thinking about starting a corporation! Who’s with me?”) rather than singing. There’s one song where he does something that gets dangerously close to rapping, which is not a part of this man’s skill set. I wouldn’t be shocked if he freestyled every last lyric on the album; that, at least, would explain the level of thought that went into these things.

You will not be surprised to learn that the White of 2018 is full of prematurely-old-man musings about the state of the world. He is mad, for instance, about you kids with your phones: “Fools desire distraction / And not take to heart / Their faces to their gadgets fall south / Ignoring the beauty of a fog on a hill / And a kitten with a mouse in its mouth.” Stop ignoring the beauty of mouse death, fools! He remembers walking “past sailors who have less tattoos than the average teenager.” Certain of his lyrics would get him laughed out of a dorm-room cypher: “The Sisyphean dreamer / My fibula and femur hold the weight of the world.” And there is a whole song, “Why Walk A Dog?,” in which White seems to equate pet ownership with absolute evil: “Are you their master? / Did you buy them at the store? / Did they know they were a cure for you to stop being bored?” (The answer to the title question, at least, seems pretty obvious: You walk a dog so that it does not shit in your house.)

Look: Legends make garbage albums. It happens all the time. White is now at least a decade removed from his prime, and he’s made a lot of music. He’s allowed to make some garbation. And that’s what Boarding House Reach is. Even taking into account all his various bands and side projects, this is the worst album that has ever borne the man’s name. Hopefully, it will always turn out to be his worst album. Hopefully, he will discover some ghost of his old spark and recapture some of what he once had when he was sitting in his little room. But I’m worried. Boarding House Reach sounds less like a detour into bullshittery, more like what this guy might just be now. It sounds like a man disappearing permanently up his own asshole. Someone please walk him.

Boarding House Reach is out 3/23 on Third Man/Columbia.

Tags: Jack White