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Jack White, ‘Blunderbuss’ (Columbia/Third Man)

Jack White / Photo by Jo McCaughey
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: April 23, 2012
Label: Columbia

The first time I saw the White Stripes, in 1999, everyone walked out with one question: Who looks at his sister like that? At each subsequent concert, once the jig was up, and once Jack’s ambition and increasingly baroque tastes exposed Meg’s close-enough-for-rock’n’roll approach to keeping time as just as much of an affectation as the candy-cane dress code, the burning question became: What if this guy played with actual skilled musicians who were up to his challenge? Would that push him further or drain the charm?

Turned out, both. In the Raconteurs, Jack White was deferential to a fault, just wanting to be one of the boys in the band, and we talked ourselves into believing Brendan Benson was his equal. With the Dead Weather, he ceded the spotlight, to the extent that he’s genetically capable, to the dynamo that is Alison Mosshart, even if the entire project was steeped in his exacting aesthetics. These were useful exercises, but even in their best moments, they often felt like just that, like White toying with the concept of limitation for sport, a heavyweight boxer winning title fights with his good hand tied behind his back. Never has a rock star appeared so evidently in control even while acting the sideman, or so comfortable in his own skin even while obfuscating his identity.

Now, with both hands free on the first album under his own (if not given) name, White’s new limitation is being able to indulge any impulse this side of wearing earth tones, to play with whomever he wants in any combination. Blunderbuss is a surprisingly measured and grounded response, given the possibilities. It’s a comfortable shoe of a record, a distillation of everything he’s done during the past decade, without the cultivated obstinacy. The emphasis is on the songs, not a prevailing ideology.

Which is not to say that the songs don’t sound of a piece. Jack White has settled into Nashville and vice versa; the record feels rooted in traditional American rock and soul and rhythm and blues without ever feeling like a civics lesson or a minstrel show. There’s considerably more piano (most of which is handled by Brooke Waggoner) than guitar. Single “Sixteen Saltines” is the closest the record comes to frenetic “Seven Nation Army”/”Blue Orchid” territory, just as those two songs were outliers of sorts on Elephant and Get Behind Me Satan. The cover of Little Willie John’s “I’m Shakin'” would have been at home on any early White Stripes record, save for the ornamental choir of female background vocals, and nods to the 1981 version by the Blasters, who did as much as anyone to open the door for cool white kids paying rough homage to the blues. The mid-tempo soul of “Love Interruption” and the pedal-steel-inflected title track, though, form the album’s baseline and wheelhouse, so the occasional climactic guitar squall, when it happens, feels all the more piercing. (On “Trash Tongue Talker,” this comes courtesy of JEFF the Brotherhood’s Jake Orrall, joining Waggoner and “Love Interruption” duet partner Ruby Amanfu as local Tennessee talent of which White smartly avails himself.)

There is swagger to spare in “Hypocritical Kiss” and “Trash Tongue Talker,” but even the most contentious moments bear more smirk than snarl. (Good luck scouring the lyrics for post-divorce biographical insights, but woe to any woman who has to argue with the narrator of the former track.) This isn’t a kinder, gentler Jack White, just one who’s currently, temporarily, run out of chips for his shoulder. And it’s not like he doesn’t have an innate sense of when he needs to make things trickier for himself: He’s bringing two backing bands on tour, one all-male and one all-female, and reportedly won’t tell them which one’s playing each night until just before the show. Just in case you were afraid he was coasting. Or in case he was afraid.

Nominal solo debut notwithstanding, Blunderbuss is the sound of a mid-career stride. It’s kind of amazing to think that White was ever lumped in with anything as ephemeral as the millennial return-of-rock phylum: He’s 36 going on 66, the only artist of his generation who can pal around with Dylan and Jagger while still sounding eight steps ahead of artists a decade his junior, and the only one we can say with confidence will have a career with the length and breadth and stature and mythology of his revered elders. If Blunderbuss seems lacking in urgency, it’s only because White knows how much more there is where that came from.