x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Jack White is back with Blunderbuss, his best effort since The White Stripes's Elephant

A fine outing. The music is just as compelling as the lyrics, while White shifts mood and tempo without ever sacrificing quality control.

Jack White on stage with his band The Dead Weather in Belfort, eastern France, in 2010.
Jack White on stage with his band The Dead Weather in Belfort, eastern France, in 2010.

Jack White
Blunderbuss
(XL / Third Man)
*****

Look up "blunderbuss" in the dictionary and you'll see that it comes from the old Dutch word "donderbus", literally meaning "thunder gun". The term also works a treat as the title of Jack White's solo debut, a blunt weapon that could spray shards of scrap iron – a fitting metaphor for the explosive, brilliantly feral guitar work that White, 36, has brought to his bands The White Stripes, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather.

While there's no shortfall of shrapnel here, either, Blunderbuss is also a spacious and, at times, reflective work, White's breathless vocals and razor-edged guitar riffs offset by woodwind, electric piano, pedal steel and more. A dazzling assault upon the senses, the work was hatched with his long-term recording aid Vance Powell at White's Nashville, Tennessee-based studio and label hub, Third Man Records.

In White's typically cryptic fashion, the album's cover art features a black buzzard perched stiffly on his shoulder. Our host also chose to record the album's 13 songs with two completely different backing bands: one all female, the other all male. Quite why he opted for this strict dichotomy isn't clear, but then White is nothing if not enigmatic. At a bizarre press conference for Blunderbuss held in London last month, the Detroit, Michigan-born singer baffled all by opting to be interviewed by the outgoing mayor of Lambeth, Christiana Valcarcel, a woman not known for grilling rock stars.

When White and Karen Elson, his supermodel wife of six years, parted company last June, that event, too, flaunted convention. The couple threw what White billed "a positive swing hum dinger" divorce party, and the invite expressed gratitude for the time he and Elson would spend "both separately and together watching our children grow".

It's intriguing, then, that behind the smoke, mirrors and sad truths, Blunderbuss reads like an outpouring of pain. More specifically, it obsesses over the hurt that a beautiful and psychologically powerful woman can inflict upon a man. In songs such as Love Interruption and Missing Pieces, White's lyrics deal with the meting out and humiliating aftershock of a deliberately cartoonish violence. Even if that violence seems as fictitious as that depicted in an episode of Tom & Jerry, moreover, you still feel for the guy who's on the receiving end in Freedom at 21. Having had the bottoms of his feet cut off, the poor chap is forced to walk on salt by a smiling woman "who does what she damn well please".

Amazingly, the music on Blunderbuss is just as compelling as the lyrics. The rip-roaring Sixteen Saltines packs a guitar hook that's as memorable as that propelling The White Stripes's track Seven Nation Army, while White's take on Rudolph Toombs's I'm Shakin' is a truly thrilling blast of primal rock 'n' roll, its stop-start riff topped off with the super-sassy backing vocals of Ruby Amanfu, Laura Matula and – wait for it – Karen Elson.

Elsewhere, White shifts mood and tempo without ever sacrificing quality control. The jazzy, free-flowing Take Me With You When You Go is a fine closer with slight echoes of the Dave Brubeck hit Take Five, and the title track is a country waltz in which White seems to channel the voice of a young Robert Plant. Weep Themselves to Sleep, meanwhile, is a winning blend of power-soaked guitar chords and honky-tonk piano, the tearful insomniacs of the title not women or children, but lovelorn, broken men.

In some ways, Blunderbuss seems like a creative adjunct to the anger management classes White was legally obliged to attend after repeatedly punching the Von Bondies singer Jason Stollsteimer in 2004. Figuratively or otherwise, the shoe appears to be on the other (severed) foot now, but it has resulted in White's finest outing since The White Stripes's 2003 masterpiece Elephant.

 

artslife@thenational.ae