There’s something deeply insincere about Jack White, he’s like the Johnny Depp of the music world: we all know he is talented and technically proficient, we all know he’s good in character, but behind the mask, it all rings a little hollow like an affectation. In Depp’s case that’s fine – he’s an actor, he’s good at playing weird – but White has always been trying hard to be different. From dressing up like a Western character in red and white outfits to pretending his wife Meg was his sister in The White Stripes, he’s always been trying hard to be a bit odd, a bit other, but ultimately it comes across as an act, like he was playing a part to make himself appear more interesting than he really is. We all know he’s a good guitarist but his songwriting is much more variable, and since the White Stripes peak era of the early noughties when retro garage rock ruled the airwaves, his solo career has been one of diminishing returns.
While his last two solo albums were underwhelming, his new album, Boarding House Reach, sees him fully vault the shark with what he describes as a ‘bizarre’ album, as he ends up sounding like an artist desperately trying to find his identity, trying desperately to be daring but instead constantly falling wide of the mark. Most of this album ends up sounding like a mess of ideas and half realised songs, so his attempts at bar room jazz, rock-infused hip-hop, prog pop, are all sliced up and left on a cutting room floor then stapled together very awkwardly in his (no doubt) very expensive studio with so many hundreds of overdubs and very, very mixed results. I am all for artists stepping out of their comfort zones and experimenting but this just sounds ill conceived and contrived. Plus, ultimately despite all the illusions, if you boil it down this is still another wired blues rock album from Jack White, albeit a very stylised tricksy one.
The beauty of the best White Stripes songs was their singalong simplicity and to the point riffing, Meg’s drum thwacks and often silent stoic presence rooting White’s riffing and blues hollering. Here, everything is too busy, buzzsaw guitars, overly fussy percussive breakdowns apparently delivered by multiple drummers, sample upon sample when a few would do.
Lead single ‘Connected by Love’ which is ‘a plea for forgiveness from a lover who has burned all his bridges‘ is a hulking beast of Hendrix aping, organs, handclaps, gospel choirs; everything is chucked into the mix to bulk up what is a very flimsy song. While the incisive guitars and stop-start rhythms of ‘Over and Over and Over’ are initially impressive, ultimately its the sound of someone repeatedly hitting their head against one idea over and over again (excuse the pun). The funky shuffle of ‘Corporation‘ is a decent stab at bar-room jazzy blues about not conforming, less like Prince and more like a Lenny Kravitz album track, it sounds like it’s been fed through hundreds of samplers which means any semblance of a tune is decimated and stretched out over five minutes. ‘Respect Commander’ is another example of this hyperactivity, ranging from Detroit funk to boisterous blues with a spoonful of Aphex Twin beats, it’s not nearly as experimental as it thinks it is. There’s a reason punk came along and blew prog apart, it sounded ridiculous in the end, drunk on its own self-importance and pretension.
“Everyone creating is a member of the family/ Passing down genes and ideas in harmony / The players and the cynics will be thinking it’s hard/ But if you rewind the tape, we’re all copying God” he ill-advisadly raps on ‘Ice Station Zebra’ which is the hilarious sound of writers block, with rhymes delivered by a guy who dreamt of being in the Beastie Boys, what’s more it’s not even that original, Beck was releasing better over twenty-five years ago.
Genuinely weird artists are just weird, they don’t need to try to be, otherwise it comes off as fake, it’s just trying too hard. Jack White is an artist lost and struggling for his previous relevance in a very different musical landscape, Maybe success robbed him of the fire he had? Maybe he’s just a good guitarist who was thrust into the limelight by circumstances and chance and believed his own hype. On Boarding House Reach he sounds like he’s desperately trying to prove how clever he is to his listeners, frankly, you wish he’d just write a few more decent songs first because this record is often so frantic, that all of the songs become a blur with very few standouts. Listening to it just leaves me wanting to reach for the pain killers.
Boarding House Reach is out now on Third Man.