Let’s just get it out of the way. Jack White’s highly anticipated third solo studio album, “Boarding House Reach,” is bizarre. Very bizarre. This is far from what we all expected, right? He shedded his skin of traditional blues rock and developed a whole new layer of music that is mystifying and beyond the rules. This isn’t implying it’s bad. In fact, as a solo album, it’s White’s best and most interesting release.
White juggles a lot here. He goes from retro funk to electronic music to hip-hop to complex rock n’ roll with some Ginger Baker’s Air Force and Jeff Beck jazz fusion in the mix and then back to his roots – pure blues and garage rock. There are many sonic experiments on “Boarding House Reach,” including tracks like “Why Walk a Dog?” and “Get in the Mind Shaft.” In a lot of ways, this is White screwing with his image of what he is supposed to release as an artist; “Boarding House Reach” is his most unmarketable album. Like many artists do, they experiment and change their sound as they progress. Sometimes it goes well, other times, it fails miserably.
Since White has established a sound of his own, from his blues influences – of course, he’s going to receive the negative reviews for his new album, if it isn’t consistent like his previous releases. It’s like what other multi-instrumentalists like Beck did on “Midnite Vultures” (1999) and Todd Rundgren recorded on “A Wizard, a True Star” (1973).
When interviewed during an appearance on KROQ’s “The Kevin and Bean Show,” White was asked about the decline of rock acts appearing on festival bills. White responded by saying, “Rock ‘n’ roll needs an injection of some new young blood to really just knock everybody dead right now.”
Almost a year after White successfully launched and played a vinyl record in space for the first time, in March of 2017, White alluded to an upcoming album in an interview with The New Yorker. He had set up in a little room in Nashville TN, where he wrote and recorded new writing and recorded new songs with a reel-to-reel tape recorder, he bought from mowing lawns, when he was fourteen. He released a track last April entitled, “Battle Cry,” which alludes to the energy on the new album.
Last December, White released the first two singles off the new album, “Connected By Love” and “Respect Commander” along with a mix of sounds called “Servings and Portions from My Boarding House Reach,” previewing the wild album.
Boarding House Reach opens with the lead single, “Connected By Love.” Lyrically, it’s a typical White track, which could’ve been from White’s previous album, Lazaretto in 2014. Nonetheless, White’s soulful vocal approach, along with the gospel choir and the warm synth line under his vocals, sets the mood for the album. “Why Walk a Dog” is a nice calm, but gloomy track, before the sonic storm.
The album peaks in an experimental sonic terrain with “Corporation” – a heavy groovy disoriented track. There’s almost everything featured on the album here: several bridges, White’s signature choppy and fuzzy guitar leads, multiple layers of piano riffs, dramatic shouts, congas, samples, and drum machines. Towards the end, it even sounds like White is imitating some Rage Against the Machine vocals, especially when singing “Yeah, I’m thinking about doing one giant drop” – previewing how far he can go.
There are a couple poetic tracks that are basically used as segues, including the gracious “Abulia and Akrasia” where blues singer, C.W. Stoneking, makes an appearance on vocals, who just wants another cup of tea before White goes on another instrumental rampage. “Hypermisophoniac” is the perfect song to annoy a common White listener and cleverly, that’s the point. Misophonia is when people react in extreme ways, after hearing a sound they strongly dislike, for example, a fork scratching a plate. This is definitely not a track, you’ll search to listen to, unless you like Beck. With layers of synths and electronics – it’s practically an orgy of strange sounds. There are a couple tracks here, that were supposed to be carried out in past projects. “Ice Station Zebra” originally was from a planned project White started with rapper, Jay-Z. This is the point of the album, where White truly changes his stripes. Named after a 1963 Cold War spy novel, White raps the most interesting lyrics from the album – “If Joe Blow says ‘Yo, you think like Avagio,’ You’ll respond ‘No, that’s an insult, yo’ I live in a vacuum, I ain’t got but no one.” “Ice Station Zebra” resembles how movie director, Edgar Wright, used music in action sequences in his recent film, Baby Driver (2017) – it creates an imagery of robbers committing a heist.
“Over and Over and Over” is an abandoned White Stripes track, dating back 13 years ago. It’s the heaviest and most standard track, both in vocals and instrumentals on the album. Artistically, it goes completely backwards. Due to the title of the track, it’s repetitive, but till the end, the intense backing vocals and skittering drums try changing directions, which is a perfect transition to the next track, “Everything You’ve Ever Learned.” This unfortunate too short of a song sounds like it could’ve been a public announcement from the concept of the new Arcade Fire album, with White acting all PBS sinister. Later, the Radiohead’s “bleep blorp bop beep boop” alters into some African drums with a chilly synth line. White’s vocals switch from sponsorship announcer to 2018 Gatorade commercial narrator. One of the best moments on the album is when White screams “Do you wanna start a fire? Well, you can watch it burn!” like he’s Jim Morrison, while the music jumps into a fire pit of chaos, where you can hear a softness of the White Stripes’ “Black Math” between layers of riffs. As White screams “Shut up and learn!” – he’s trying to burn his past image and embrace his new one.
On “Respect Commander,” White breaks into a hard rock psychedelic jam, which during the breakbeats, sounds like you’re at the main menu of a video game by PlayStation, but later sounds like White shredding some Led Zeppelin. White speaks low and high in harmony on “Ezmerelda Steals the Show,” which points out why White doesn’t want his audience on their cell phones at concerts with the lyrics – “Their faces to their gadgets fall south / Ignoring the beauty of a fog on a hill.” “Get in the Mind Shaft” opens with some spoken words from White, then develops into a funky electronica, echoing Daft Punk and the Flaming Lips.
“What’s Done is Done” repeats the warm synth line the album opens with, while White and country and folk singer, Esther Rose, sing an aching suicide ballad. Everything calms down on the soothing final track, “Humoresque.” It was supposedly written by the legendary gangster, Al Capone and is set to classical music from Czech composer, Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904). White purchased a musical manuscript by Capone, written while he was in Alcatraz. In a cover story with Rolling Stone, White said he was moved by Capone’s affection for “a gentle, beautiful song.” We know White is experimenting with many genres on Boarding House Reach, but it’s maddening how he would even consider taking on classic music. Either way, he made me a dreamy romantic.
The experimentation on Boarding House Reach among fans is divisive, but it’s about time White released an album like this. While, Jack White dives deep into numerous genres and styles of music – his public image as an eccentric rock star however, will always remain.
You can see White generating sonic explosion, his simple head bang, and sporting his traditional long and frizzy hair on April 19th, as he kick starts his spring tour. But remember, no cell phone use and do not attend if you dislike the color blue. For a preview of his upcoming tour, watch his recent show at the Warsaw venue in Brooklyn, NY.
Classic Tracks – “Corporation,” “Hypermisophoniac,” “Ice Station Zebra,” “Over and Over and Over,” “Everything You’ve Ever Learned,” “Respect Commander,” “Get In the Mind Shaft”
Ehh – “Abulia and Akrasia” and “Humoresque”
You can listen to Jack White’s Boarding House Reach here.