You can check out of a record like 2018’s ‘Boarding House Reach’, but you can never leave. That scattershot third solo album was a wild experiment, the former White Stripes‘ – if you will – Jack White Album: all spoken-word interludes, rapping, electronic sound collages and funk jams, pieced together digitally by a man once married to the analogue and imbued with the spirit of a histrionic Captain Beefheart.
As hit-and-miss as such sharp left-turns often are, however, it seemed to top the Billboard chart on the back of White’s reputation rather than its sonic charms, and there was much hint of a return-to-type around the announcement of ‘Fear Of The Dawn’, the ‘rock’ half of a Springsteen-style two-album release schedule for 2022, with the ‘folk’ bit, ‘Entering Heaven Alive’, due in July.
It certainly sets out on the road to rock redemption. Opener ‘Taking Me Back’ arrives riding a storm of fuzz rock riffs akin to Muse embracing Americana, with a desperate but determined Jack declaring “you’re taking me back / I’ll bet you do!” as much to his core rock fanbase as the ex-partner he’s rebuilding bridges with in the lyrics. His electronic experiments survive in the chopped-up synths undercutting the latter verses, but act as merely a timely nod to modernity.
Likewise, the two-minute title track is full-on AC/DC power rock, with harpy screeches of guitar dive-bombing out of the ether. That a recurring dusk-’til-dawn theme starts to permeate suggests that White’s old mentality of having strict codes, colours and techniques for each album are back in play too, after the creative free-for-all of ‘Boarding House Reach’. A comfort zone is roughly sketched back into place.
Then again, ‘Boarding House Reach’ was one of those benchmark albums that firmly states ‘anything goes from here’, and so it proves. By the third track, ‘The White Raven’, White is attempting to make a fairly schoolyard sort of tune sound interesting with heavily industrialised production throbs, on-edge falsettos and bits of cyborg saxophone.
Then ‘Hi-De-Ho’ turns up like an unexpected house call from your old ‘Boarding House…’ roommate. Doom-rock atmospherics and operatic, shirt-ripping flamenco vocals frame a scene reminiscent of a Morricone funeral, before a sample of Cab Calloway introduces a Gorillaz-style cartoon rap from A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, name-checking Stevie Wonder, Chuck Berry, Minnie Riperton and Mariah Carey, while Jack adds occasional Spanish guitar licks. Back to basics? Think again.
What White has done with ‘Fear Of The Dawn’, in fact, is row his experimental tendencies back a little, as if to meet the desires of his audience halfway. Unfortunately, that can make large chunks of the ensuing record a confused and purposeless mess.
‘Eosophobia’ cheerfully rips up the map to wherever it was supposed to be heading, starting out as deep dub and morphing into prog funk and jazzy math-rock, via jarring detours into freak-out space noise. Its entire raison d’etre appears to be to give Jack a chance to fuck around with it – mission accomplished – and it certainly doesn’t need a three-minute ‘Reprise’ towards the end of the album, where White adds a dubby guitar workout, a Deep Purple bit and appears to be trying to control the sun (“it listens to me!”) with its arcane musical witchcraft.
Likewise ‘That Was Then, This Is Now’, which kicks in like a retro garage rocker speeding away with our hearts, but gets purposefully – nay, mockingly – tripped up with plodding funk rock segments, as though Jack is hell-bent on hobbling his own song. ‘Into The Twilight’ is an incongruous piece of funk-pop, jabbering scats and spoken-word sections, but at least it’s left to run its course without being jerked back by the throat, which is where the album, sporadically, works best.
For all its semi-rapping – never really White’s strongest point – ‘What’s The Trick?’ hits home as a catchy and dynamic blues rock take on the Beastie Boys, and ‘Morning, Noon And Night’ gets to speak for itself, too, as a pleasing slice of prog funk that sounds like ‘The Hardest Button To Button’ got into Miles Davis and tranqs.
“Better to illuminate than merely to shine,” White sings on album closer ‘Shedding My Velvet’, a chintzy mid-paced throwback to the sort of ‘80s soft rock that Robert Plant indulged around 1983 track ‘Big Log’, minus a chorus to take it anywhere of note. Maybe that’s the idea here – to gently illuminate the sonic possibilities in his music rather than let the songs radiate on their own merits. But the track also helpfully self-reviews ‘Fear Of The Dawn’: “I’m not as bad as I was / But not as good as I can be”.
Release date: April 8
Record label: Third Man Records