Review: Jack White ‘Blunderbuss’

Release date: April 24, 2012.
Rating: 3.5/5

Jack White has always given off the impression of being completely in control of the world around him. While several of his contemporaries that he shared shelf space with when The White Stripes first emerged ten years ago feigned an air of coolness, White’s persona was by far the most legitimate, and only strengthened as those contemporaries either faded into obscurity and/or diminished considerably in their returns.

Jack White may have never made an album using nothing but ARP synthesizers or a one-hundred piece orchestra, but he has always managed to surprise and enlighten listeners without ever reinventing himself. His extra-curricular work with The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, as well his production work for legends like Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson, not to mention his quirky label, Third Man Records, have also strengthened his unstoppable rock-god stature, seemingly doing whatever he wants, when he wants, and actually making memorable records in the process, unlike say, Neil Young, who’s notorious for his level of control, but not so much for his consistency.

In the case of his first solo album, “Blunderbuss,” this may be the first time where White has made a record not necessarily because he wants to, but because it’s his only choice for getting out a full album of his material. The White Stripes ending was not his idea. Meg White, for whatever reason, decided to call it quits after beating around the bush for several years. He said in a recent profile for The New York Times that he would continue his former band forever if he could, saying “It’s something I really, really miss.”

Fortunately, the fact that “Blunderbuss” is a compromise doesn’t affect it’s quality too much. The ferocious “Sixteen Saltines” kicks in like classic Stripes venom, White’s guitar sounding rough and dangerous while his signature yelp kicks into a vicious command. The stuttered “Freedom at 21,” which was previously released via helium balloon, likewise finds White stretching out with one of his patented electric riffs over rumbling beats.

A common detracting comment made towards The White Stripes was often over Meg White’s limited drumming skills. I personally abhorred this complaint, as her style was a big part of what made them an irresistibly original duo.  Their songs were a weird brand of disjointed, junkyard blues rock, an authentic quality that The Black Keys could never dream of achieving. The record has his own brand of sloppiness when it comes to the skins which gives “Blunderbuss” a similarly off the cuff feel that the two Dead Weather records have, the beats seemingly falling out of Autolux drummer Carla Azar’s arms rather than being nailed down.

The record is at its best when White is simply being himself, rather than paying tribute to his influences. A vinyl enthusiast to the end, the record has a considerably different feel on each of its two sides, a separation that feels deliberate. Side A finds White mixing his rock-historianisms into a string of excellently crafted songs from the alt country waltzing of the title track, to the Memphis folk of “Love Interruption,” to the jangly autumn drive of “Hypocritical Kiss.” While certainly referencing many styles, the tunes are unmistakably his own.

It’s on the album’s second half where White lets his indulgences get the best of him. Opening with the Little Willie John Cover of “I’m Shakin'”, White gives off the impression of a fun rock-in with the boys (and girls), but feels like a run-through rather than a concise album track. The same goes for “Trash Tongue Talker” which has a boogie-woogie swagger that doesn’t have the fun spontaneity that previous ventures with his former wife had. The southern sway of “I Guess I Should Go to Sleep,” and the “Zep III”-ish “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” go down well enough, but are just as easily forgotten.

White does at least pack in a memorable close in “Take Me With You When You Go.” While starting out like just another farm-side Rhodes workout, it makes an unexpected shift into a “How Many More Times” breakdown with White trading quick-fire verses with Ruby Amanfu (who sings backing vocals on several songs across the album), for a raucous send out.

The exit of Meg White from the music world was a disheartening turn, to the extent where it almost makes one wish Jack White’s solo work would fail, proving her muse-like mysteriousness. Jack is too crafty though. Good records fall off of him, and while “Blunderbuss” doesn’t hold up to his best work, it’s a worthy addition to the canon. Hope may still be held out for a return to the red, white and black fatigues, but for now, the washed out, bird-on-shoulder blues will more than suffice.