Jack White Wields Powerful Guitar and Lyrics on Debut

Jack White -- Blunderbuss -- XL/Third Man/Columbia -- 4 STARS

If the lyrics on Jack White’s “Blunderbuss” are reflective of reality, then White is in a relationship, and he’s totally whipped. “I hear a whistle, that’s how I know she’s home,” White yelps on “Sixteen Saltines.” On “I’m Shakin,” he references the story of Samson and Delilah, one of the earliest and most famous recordad instances of woman dominating man. It would seem as though White, one of the most charismatic and powerful musicians of his time, has ceded control of himself to another even mightier than he.

But while White may not be in control of his love life, “Blunderbuss” shows him to be in complete control of his songcraft, arrangements, and vocals. This is perhaps the most fleshed-out album White has ever attempted, and it shows for the first time the artist’s musical sensibilities when given complete creative control. It is sometimes hard not to get the feeling that he has been constrained by the groups he played in: he was locked into stomping bass-drum grooves with Meg White by his side and stuck behind a drum kit and without a microphone in The Dead Weather. Instead of using his newfound freedom to turn wildly experimental, White relies heavily on the blues, which he has done throughout his career. However, he also peppers his album with Dixieland, cello-led ballads, and unapologetic, thrashing rock anthems. Although White sings of his subordination throughout, don’t be fooled: for the past 10 years, there have been few better in the music business.

A three-song section in the middle of the album shows White exercising his ability to explore all corners of his musical vocabulary. “Freedom at 21” is a dark tale of abuse urged forward by rumbling snare hits and heavily distorted guitars. Shortly after the final guitar chord wahs out, vanishing in a haze of feedback, a delicate organ line introduces “Love Interruption,” the first single and one of the strongest songs White has ever written. With its bare-bones instrumentation and frail harmonies, “Love Interruption” is incredibly raw. Many words have been spilled over the concept of love, but White sounds refreshing and genuine when he sings, “I want love / To walk right up and bite me / Grab a hold of me and fight me / Leave me dying on the ground.” The song’s raggedness is highlighted all the more when placed right before title song “Blunderbuss,” an immaculately produced pop ballad that centers around a simple piano phrase and swells and crests through waves of slide guitars and strings.

Yet while the instrumentation and musical style change drastically through just these three songs, they all sound natural sitting next to each other. White’s vocals play a major role in achieving this easy progression. The three songs paint three very different aspects of love, and White carries a new attitude with each one. “Freedom at 21,” the most aggressive of the set, is filled with crisp ad-libs like “Hey!” and “That’s right.” In contrast, White’s voice trembles with nostalgia on “Blunderbuss;” he sings with an impassioned desire that never becomes overly sentimental.

The album has many strengths, but White’s collection of underwhelming melodies means that this latest effort is not a realization of the artist’s full potential. Although “Weep Themselves To Sleep” opens with a powerful piano-and-guitar riff and possesses a moment of classic Jack White guitar artistry, the melody consists of one phrase based around a single note repeated over and over again. Given that some of strongest melodies White has recorded have been collaborative projects with Raconteurs guitarist Brendan Benson (“Hands” or “You Don’t Understand Me”), melodies may be the one musical area in which White isn’t able to manage completely on his own.

However, Jack White’s music isn’t focused around melodies. It’s much more about the storytelling and the emotions he can coax out of a guitar. In this way, White can be seen as an authentic bluesman—an heir in a dying breed—who possesses the ability to sing very specific narratives and make them felt on a universal level. On “Blunderbuss,” White deeply conveys the pain and ecstasy of unrequited love and uncontrollable desire.

—Staff writer Andrew Chow can be reached at andrewchow@college.harvard.edu.

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