Jack White, Blunderbuss
In Emmett Malloy’s fine 2007 White Stripes documentary, Under the Great White Northern Lights, Jack White said his favorite thing that had ever been written about the band was that they were “simultaneously the most fake band in the world and the most real band in the world.” It was an uncommonly honest admission from White, who’s been so adept at mixing fact and lie that it’s almost impossible, even after his spending a decade as America’s most imaginative rock star, to know where one ends and the other begins. Notoriously, his sister and bandmate, Meg, was unmasked as his ex-wife, but he continued to play his role as little brother so convincingly that any Google search will reveal huge communities of fans who refuse to believe otherwise.
Jack White’s appeal shouldn’t be hard to explain. He’s a marvelously gifted musician who oozes charisma. And yet, he’s most in his element when he’s burying just those traits. He thrives on almost masochistic limitation—playing out-of-tune guitars, using second-rate equipment, sacrificing quality for aesthetic value, his Luddite’s appreciation of technology. He’s surely gunning for a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but he doesn’t want to make it too easy on himself.
That discipline is clear on his first solo album, Blunderbuss. Finally loosed from the constraints of a drummer who couldn’t keep up with him (Meg) or bandmates who steal the spotlight (The Dead Weather’s Alison Mosshart), he tosses out an album of understated gems.
Fans who weren’t sure what Jack White they’d be getting will be pleased to find the album closer to the Get Behind Me, Satan-era White Stripes than anything else in his repertoire. It sounds like Nashville at its most experimental—fitting, since White only recently relocated himself there. There’s rock, country, blues, some honky tonk and some Beatles-y moments of psychedelic distortion. It lacks the head-banging riffage of Elephant but makes up for it by rocking in subtler, more surprising, even more melodic ways. And although it might be a solo album, he’s not alone.
Behind every great Jack White track there is a great woman, and he knows it. A nameless “she” haunts these songs as both his muse, his personal demon and, frequently, his accompanist. On the blazing “Sixteen Saltines,” which is essentially a collection of supremely awesome couplets (She doesn’t know but when she’s gone I’m gonna sit and drink up a few / I’m sure she’s drinking too but I’m wondering for what and who), he examines his feeling for the femme fatale, who might be his ex-wife, Karen Elson; his ex-wife/sister/ex-drummer, Meg; or some new terror. But it seems increasingly likely that the woman in question is metaphoric: the red-headed personification of not only his happiness but his aforementioned self-flagellation as a means to holiness. On the wryly gentle “Love Interruption,” he sings, I want love to grab my fingers gently, slam them into a doorway, push my head into the ground.
Good luck with that, Jack.
The sublime video for “Sixteen Saltines” finds Jack White the prisoner of a Lords of the Flies-ian dystopia in which teenagers have taken over. Not a subtle metaphor, perhaps, for a 36-year-old rock star covering Little Willie John like he’s never even heard of Skrillex (which he may, indeed, have not), but it’s an effective one. But Jack White doesn’t need to prove anything to us anymore—he’s easing into his role as middle-aged star gracefully. As an album, this isn’t in the same stratosphere of cool as any White Stripes album, but he seems aware of it. Instead of evolving, he’s continuing to make it harder on himself by sticking to what made him famous in the first place: writing great songs. It’s out of place in the iPhone generation, and more so than any other thing about him, it rings true.
Tyler Huckabee is something else. He lives in the Great Plains, where he produces videos, directs plays for the Colonel Mustard Amateur Attic Theater Company and writes a monthly column in the Lincoln Journal Star. He tweets, tinkers around on a blog and has contributed to Stereo Subversion, goTandem and Videogum.