I’ve had Jack White’s first solo effort for about a year now, and I feel like I’ve only recently gotten a handle on my own feelings about it. Those who listen to music in the same room as me know how big a fan I am of White’s other projects. The White Stripes are pretty much my favorite band, and the second album by the Raconteurs spent about two solid years in my car CD player. Safe to say that when Blunderbuss dropped last year, my anticipation was through the roof. But what I didn’t expect was that I wouldn’t totally love it immediately.
Don’t get me wrong, I love it now. I think it might be his best work since Elephant in 2003. But it doesn’t start with the guns blazing, and save for a couple of barnburners it’s executed with a minimum of riffage. In the place of scummy blues and squealing guitars is an upright piano plunking along with most of the tracks, sounding like it was recorded in an Old West saloon (knowing White, this might be the case). It’s not exactly a quiet album. There’s plenty of kick and intensity to these songs, but their power comes from someplace besides sheer muscle. A pedal steel is utilized in a couple of tracks, giving them a soft mournful edge that I’ve never heard in any of White’s work. Only on two tracks does he cut loose and pound out some real rockers. The first is the second single, “Sixteen Saltines,” which sounds like a beefed-up Stripes song. The other is the one song not by penned by White, “I’m Shakin’.” It sounds a little out of place here, but I still love it, with it’s backup girl singers and the affected way White proclaims that he’s “noivus.”
Certainly a lot of that intensity comes from the lyrics, which seem to come from a more nakedly emotional place than one might expect. To be sure, the last couple of years have been somewhat eventful for White. He went through the breakup of one of the key bands of the new millennium, and got divorced as well. It would be simplistic to say the songs are about ex-band-member Meg White or ex-wife Karen Elson, since he’s apparently on good terms with both of them still. But the loss and transition still come up here. Some songs are angrier than others. “Trash Talkin’ Tongue” is particularly venomous, and “Hypocritical Kiss” is equally scathing. More interesting to me is “Love Interruption,” with it’s talk of all the horrible things that love does, and how he still wants them all.
It’s that tension that continues to bring me back to Jack White and to all of his works. He deals in trying to defy expectations, in the ways that he sets up little fictions for the public and allows everyone to fill in the blanks. Of course, if you try too hard to go against the flow, you’re left with no core or center. But White knows where he is musically, a little more yearning, a little angrier, and a little softer than we’ve seen him before. It’s taken a whole year for it to grow on me. When he isn’t working with Meg White, Brendan Benson, or Dean Fertita, it feels like we get just a little bit closer to who he is. Of course, I’m sure that’s exactly what he wants us to think.