Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Jack White Fear Of The Dawn

Third Man
Third Man

“Every time I go in, I’m trying to do something I haven’t done before,” Jack White recently explained. “And it’s not like something that other people have never done before. It’s just something I have never done before.” That’s a tall order after a tour de force White Stripes catalog that zigzagged all over 20th century rock, blues, country, pop, punk, and soul; fruitful stints emphasizing either side of the hyphen in “pop-rock” with the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather; and a steady progression from organic to electronic in his solo discography.

Speaking to Apple’s Zane Lowe, White talked about making his new album mostly alone during lockdown, like so many other musicians during the pandemic. Rather than recruiting the kinds of crack musicians who tend to fill out his touring bands, White played almost everything himself, which dovetailed nicely with his search for new creative territory. “I made mistakes,” he continued. “I would play drums last, which you’re not supposed to do. But then I started to feed off of that. I thought, ‘I like that.’ I liked that it was wrong.”

The result of this process is Fear Of The Dawn, the first of two new Jack White albums dropping this year. It’s out tomorrow, and it achieves White’s goal of taking his music to strange new places, some of them far more rewarding than others. Does it supply the same thrill as De Stijl or White Blood Cells or Icky Thump? No, but a decade into his solo career, no one, except maybe Jack White, is expecting it to. The relevant question is whether this music will provide low-stakes enjoyment or an endurance test for those already invested in the Jack White experience. (Those not already invested should go back and listen to a White Stripes record instead; you have so much joy to look forward to.)

I was trying to figure out why White’s solo career has been so underwhelming, so I went back and listened to the three albums he released prior to Fear Of The Dawn. The best of those albums, 2012’s solo debut Blunderbuss, leaned hard into the scrappy Beatles influence White sometimes flaunted on White Stripes albums. From there, Lazaretto and Boarding House Reach drifted farther and farther off into weirdo jam-session sound experiments and away from the brilliant songwriting that made the White Stripes so great. But that Beatles resemblance got me thinking about the parallels between Fear Of The Dawn and Paul McCartney’s own quarantine album, McCartney III. It changed the way I listen to White’s new record.

Upon its release, my colleague Tom Breihan wrote that Blunderbuss “sounds like it was knocked out over a lazy back-porch afternoon” and was all the better for it. Fear Of The Dawn does not sound lazy, but it does sound loose. The record feels very much like White messing around in the studio, trying out new paths forward until he gets somewhere he likes. In spirit, and sometimes in substance, it’s not so different from the bashed-out, largely unpolished nuggets McCartney came up with at his own home studio. This being Jack White and not Paul McCartney, there’s a lot more guitar heroism on display, and the Jerry Lee Lewis electrocuted-howler shtick is ramped up to extremes. But if the prospect of a journey to the fringes of Jack White’s imagination appeals to you, you may well get something out of this exercise.

Fear Of The Dawn is easily White’s heaviest solo album. The magnificent title track, with its rumbling low-end guitar groove, might as well be Queens Of The Stone Age. White often unloads nasty guitar riffs tweaked by wacky harmonic pitch-shifting, usually backed by heavy straight-ahead beats. Colorful blasts of piano, organ, and synthesizer pop in and out of the mix, as do heavily processed lead guitar parts. White’s vocals are as raw and wild-eyed as ever, but the music behind him has never been more carnivalesque, for better and worse. “Eosophobia” toggles between dubby bass and Who-worthy arena-rock bombast and jazzy keyboard-led prog — an encapsulation of the album’s mad-scientist vibes.

Not all of these experiments work. The Cab Calloway-sampling Q-Tip collab “Hi De Ho” is a post-genre monstrosity that plays out like an ugly cartoon. The vocoder-laden “Into The Twilight” is similarly gaudy. Yet even the most obnoxious songs on Fear Of The Dawn will probably go off at White’s upcoming tour dates thanks to the visceral power he maintains throughout the album. And when he wrestles his ideas into actual songs, like the thunderous “That Was Then (This Is Now),” the chopped-up battering ram “What’s The Trick,” the jaunty stomper “Morning, Noon, And Night,” and the ripshit opener “Taking Me Back,” you might remember why you cared about this guy in the first place. Even some of his outbursts hit like a return to his old sidelong wisdom: “Plus-one and minus-one is zero/ That’s a defeatist attitude!”

Unmissable lyrical motifs course through the tracklist. Most obvious is the titular idea of being frightened by the rising sun; “Eosophobia” is just a fancy word for “fear of the dawn.” On that one, he declares, “I don’t fear you/ I fear the dawn/ I fear the sun coming on!” Other titles include “Dusk,” “Into The Twilight,” and “Morning, Noon, And Night.” White’s been singing about walling himself from the world at least since Lazaretto, and it’s easy to imagine him turning to a nocturnal lifestyle as an extension of such self-protective tendencies — a theory supported by lines like “My motives are invisible/ My armor is invincible!” and “This is my first, my worst, my past, and my last imperfect effort/ 100 insults left on my windshield in the morning.”

White’s lyrics have me wondering if he’s fixated on the backlash to his cantankerous public persona and how it has at times overshadowed his post-Stripes musical output. “You’re taking me back,” he exclaims up front. “I’ll bet you do, but not for long!” Later on, he confides, “I’m dead to the world, but not to you.” But closing track “Shedding My Velvet,” sort of a mystic blues vamp steeped in prog and jazz fusion, suggests he may be ready to step out into the light again. There’s some inscrutable nonsense between the pounding pianos and slicing wah-wah guitar: “Think horses, not zebras when you hear the sound of hooves on the ground/ You are the heliotrope who loves the sun as it goes round and round.” But when the song bottoms out into its soft acoustic finale, there’s a sense of resolution: “Better to illuminate than merely to shine/ You say this all the time/ And you’re right.”

Does White believe he has something to teach the world? Is he inching toward sharing more of himself with the public, despite his every wary pullquote being weaponized against him? (He has a point about the detrimental effects of cell phones, kids.) I’m not sure Fear Of The Dawn qualifies as a wise dispatch or a revealing self-portrait, but it’s at least a wild ride — one that ensures the obligatory new songs between the classics on White’s setlists will hit hard, and one that has me curious about the subtler, folkier sounds of his upcoming Entering Heaven Alive. A lot of people will quite reasonably find this album unlistenable, but thinking of it as a fun left turn from a rock legend, a la McCartney III, has warmed me to it somewhat. If White insists on pushing his music to strange new places, at least he’s made sure it rocks extremely hard.

Fear Of The Dawn is out 4/8 via Third Man Records.

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