He returns with a long-awaited glimpse into his world
When he was asked if he kept a notebook to record all of his great ideas, Einstein answered with a shrug that he’d only ever had one. That the idea in question was the theory of relativity, the cornerstone of our understanding of the universe, is beside the point: true inspiration strikes the individual as seldom as a bolt of blue ice from the undercarriage of a passing aircraft.
Jack White III was John Anthony Gillis’ one great idea. Simple enough on the outside but deceptively complex under the hood, his arbitrary, self-imposed rules and restrictions, sexually charged brother-sister-husband-whatever chemistry with Meg and alchemical knack for divining inspiration from limitation made The White Stripes the most enigmatic band of a decade in which rock’n’roll all-but surrendered its mystique. They understood the value of a good gimmick, but also that the gimmick must be in service of something valuable – and until their demise last February, that’s exactly what they were.
Five years, two bands and three albums removed from the Stripes’ final album ‘Icky Thump’, however, and while Jack has been busier than ever, he’s often resembled a boy with a bouquet of flowers, unsure of which suitor to hand them to. Across two albums, The Raconteurs couldn’t quite transcend their roots as a pub rock gentlemen’s club. Likewise, The Dead Weather have yet to equal the sum of their own not-inconsiderable parts. He’s put down roots at Third Man Records, where he’s excelled as curator, archivist and all-purpose svengali, but such is his notorious economy with the truth, so long is the cryptic trail of breadcrumbs at his back, our desire for a musical document that’s definitively, unarguably ‘Him’ is understandable.
Is ‘Blunderbuss’ that document? It’s probably about as close as he’ll ever allow us to get. Certainly, no artist as self-aware as Jack White would make an album about sexual politics and the breakdown of relationships and expect people not to draw parallels with his own recent divorces, musical or otherwise. It would be a mistake to characterise ‘Blunderbuss’ as White’s ‘Blood On The Tracks’ or ‘Here, My Dear’, but there seems little doubt that the severing of ties with the two most important women in his life – first Meg and then Karen Elson, whom he divorced last year – was preying on his mind during the making of this record.
Opener ‘Missing Pieces’ sets the tone. Over a woozy, six-note Rhodes piano riff, the song employs a wonderfully literal approach to the give-and-take of relationships by having Jack’s bewildered protagonist waking up each day with fewer and fewer body parts until he’s left virtually tetraplegic on the floor, cursing at how, “[i]When they tell you they just can’t live without you/They ain’t lying, they’ll take pieces of you/And they’ll stand above you/And walk away[/i]”. Harsh? Brace yourself, because that ain’t the half of it.
The men of ‘Blunderbuss’ are pitiable, weak-willed clumps of dirt beneath the sharpened stiletto heels of black-hearted valkyries, and the most fearsome of them all is the siren of ‘Sixteen Saltines’. The album’s second single is a brusque, corrosive blues-rocker in the mould of ‘Blue Orchid’, which finds an emasculated, exasperated Jack trying – and failing – to keep it together while his malevolent ex flaunts herself around town. “[i]When I’m by myself, I think of nothing else[/i],” he eventually admits, “[i]than if a boy just might be getting through and touching you[/i].”
But things do get a little more nuanced than mere hot-tempered woman cussin’. The title track, a lovely waltz-time lament for a relationship that simply wasn’t meant to be, quietly resigns itself to the fact that “[i]doing what two people need is never on the menu[/i]”. Utilising a neat mid-song perspective shift to turn the tables on “the boy who talks but says nothing”, ‘Hypocritical Kiss’ grudgingly acknowledges that there are no innocent bystanders in the war of the sexes. And despite what Jack himself says about the song, a smattering of veiled lyrical references and a Meg-friendly nursery rhyme-melody make it hard to read ‘Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy’ as anything other than a charming, good-natured adieu to his old bandmate.
The album’s lyrics will invite debate and interpretation (something that’s wholly deliberate on Jack’s part, if sending out lyric sheets to reviewers is anything to go by), but musically, too, ‘Blunderbuss’ is a beguiling thing. The brilliant ‘Freedom At 21’ comes this close to being outright hip-hop, with White spitting out his syllables atop a repetitive earworm of a blues hook and frantic, hummingbird-heart drums. The (mostly female) group of Nashville-based musicians he’s assembled as his band have also had a profound effect on the album’s sound, from Ruby Amanfu’s sultry, smoky co-vocal on ‘Love Interruption’ to Brooke Waggoner’s piano histrionics, which utterly dominate ‘Weep Themselves To Sleep’. Even if they stretched their modus operandi to breaking point, it’s tough to imagine The White Stripes ever making this record.
Which is the whole point, no? In Jack’s own words, “These songs feel like they could only be presented under my own name. These songs were written from scratch, had nothing to do with anyone or anything else but my own expression, my own colours on my own canvas.” It’s dangerous to take their meaning at face value: for all that ‘Blunderbuss’ will be touted as his ‘divorce album’, Karen Elson still contributes backing vocals to three songs, so the pair are presumably on better than alimony cheque-collecting terms. Nevertheless, at the record’s end, whether by accident or design, you sense he’s let slip a morsel of himself that was once jealously guarded. Perhaps that’s just what he wants you to think, of course, but while ‘Blunderbuss’ isn’t that definitive, unarguable document we’ve been seeking, it still feels like his most candid and personal record yet.
This is the side of Jack White III he’s happy to show the world right now, and it’s absolutely fascinating to behold.