It’s a struggle to evaluate Jack White’s album output independent of what he’s done with his storied music career thus far. His former flame The White Stripes have now dissolved, evidently from bandmate/ex-wife Meg White’s reluctance of the lifestyle. He continues playing in on- and off-again brotherhood in the Raconteurs, and barks back at The Kills’ Alison Mosshart in Dead Weather. Aside from his bands, he’s built a Nashville-based vinyl/singles mini-empire and produced for a bevy of new and veteran artists – from Loretta Lynn to the Black Belles, Wanda Jackson to another ex-, Karen Elson. Of his contemporaries in influence and confluence of skill, White champions more women than most, and to electrifying effect.
One could even say that White’s output has been dependent or at least informed by whom he’s working with -- or against. White explained in the guitarist doc “It Might Get Loud” that he opts to play difficult guitars he has to fight.
White in solo debut “Blunderbuss,” however, opts more for piano/Wurlitzer (played by Brooke Waggoner) than guitar to fill in spaces or take the lead on lines. So, instead, he has-it-out in his lyrics and with his voice. White battles an invisible “other” in many circumstances, most frequently the lovers that burn him or whom he likes to burn in his songs. And it’s worth noting that he sings like a woman some of the time.
On “Love Interruption” he has help from Ruby Amanfu in this self-inflicted, desirous masochism for love “to change my friends to enemies / and show me how it’s all my fault.” And then he fights back with a defiant chorus and another blazer like “Hypocritical Kiss,” as he sharply mocks his wounded predator. He gives way to rap-singing on “Freedom at 21” like an old bluesman lamenting the independence of the 21st century woman, combating such intimidations with his ferocious modulated guitar solo.
Such lacerations are tolerable because – like his public persona – White can also be sneaky, coolly clownish and cheeky. Self-reflective “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” and boogie-woogie waltz “I Guess I Should Go Back to Sleep” are like White’s “Don’t Pass Me By” and “Rocky Raccoon” (no, there’s no direct correlative to “Sweet Honey Pie”), funny, weird, jaunty side-routes that diverge from normal roots-rock and blues-inspired songs. His inner-Harrison comes out for dryly religious “On and On and On” where he goes back to the “poor boy” in comfort. White nails a straight-up blues cover “I’m Shakin’,” delivering a literal laugh-out-loud performance -- were it only not ruined by the angelic girl-group back-up singers, as if they couldn’t handle that much scuzz.
Maybe humor helps White to dabble a bit in his personal and career past. He makes several references to he and Meg’s former apparel scheme of choice, in gnarly “Sixteen Saltines” (“Black hat white shoes and I'm red all over”) and the “red and ivory” from the title track. In it, the pedal steel melts away into White’s mercurial and (Freddie) Mercurial mood: “Blunderbuss’” bursts in sexual tension and then release, singing “It’s safe to say that others would not approve… doing what two people need is never on the menu.” Those reflective lines and strings, of course, come packed with the mystery if his tryst ever happened at all.
It's another example on "Blunderbuss" of making sweet things salty, and dirty things pretty. And, sometimes, simple things complicated.
Despite these lyrical themes, there is still a lack of sonic coherence from “Blunderbuss” on the whole. Closer “Take Me With You When You Go” borrows the same melodic notions of opener “Missing Pieces,” but it sounds more like an exercise in genre than a finalized piece of music, violins and the white noise of a crash seemingly slapped on like a temp worker. “Weep Themselves to Sleep” is gratingly repetitive and tired rock ‘n’ roller “Trash Tongue Talker” suffers greatly from Boring Bass Syndrome.
In this way, this is an actual record, a timestamped moment in White’s history to archive his state of mind, mid-career. He makes some dirty things more innocent, and the sweetest things dirt By now, he could have 10 or 100 more great song ideas, and with his resources and reputation, the ability to explore many of them. I want to hear those, not just there are some missteps on “Blunderbuss,” but because there’s magnificent lockstep too. It’s not all hard labor.