Three weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to be in New York interviewing Jack White for what will be Uncut’s next cover story. The trip took in White’s unveiling of his two new bands on Saturday Night Live (you can watch the performances here) and a couple of pretty intense one-on-ones, the first of which became a fairly epic grapple of sorts.
The reason for all this, of course, is the reasonably imminent arrival of White’s first solo album, “Blunderbuss”; a record which, I think, fulfils most of our highest expectations for this next step in the story. It marks something of a bridgehead in his career, where the focus inevitably shifts onto White, rather than onto the concepts and confidence tricks with which he has habitually packaged his projects. Still, though, “Blunderbuss” is laden with brilliant topspin, signposted by a new colour code – pale blue – and those two exceptional all-male and all-female bands with which he is playing this new music.
As “Love Interruption” and “Sixteen Saltines” may have hinted, plenty of “Blunderbuss” reads at least superficially like a document on battles and misunderstandings between the sexes: even the sole cover version, a roistering vamp through Rudolph Toomb’s “I’m Shakin’”, is consistent to the theme, with its jump-jive era retelling of the story of Samson and Delilah.
The first three songs – “Missing Pieces”, “Sixteen Saltines” and “Freedom At 21” (the album’s biggest stylistic departure: a grid of sliding beats and spat lyrics that betrays an inventive recycling of hip-hop dynamics) –in isolation look suspiciously like invective against womankind. But “Blunderbuss” is a more complex and many-sided piece of work, with shifting narratives and perspectives, White voicing male and female parts in at least one song (the outstanding “Hypocritical Kiss”) and a male protagonist on his knees begging for absolution in the valedictory “Take Me With You When You Go”.
White is predictably proud and defensive about his various work since the White Stripes’ “Icky Thump”, but there’s no doubt that “Blunderbuss” is the record that most of that band’s fans have been wanting him to make for the past few years: “Sixteen Saltines”, in particular, sounds more or less like a fleshed-out take on the “Elephant”-era sound, particularly “The Hardest Button To Button” (In case you hadn’t heard, White’s live bands are playing songs from throughout his career: no Year Zero absolutism here, pleasingly).
Interestingly, though, if there’s one White Stripes album that “Blunderbuss” reminds me of, it’s “Get Behind Me Satan”, with its tricksy R&B piano songs, its playfulness and viciousness. Flourishing piano lines (often played by Brooke Waggoner rather than White. Keyboardists are central to the new live bands- hence the recruitment of Ikey Owens from The Mars Volta as her opposite number in the boy band) anchor a bunch of the best songs here, especially in a run through the middle of “Blunderbuss” that ranks as one of the best sequences White has ever recorded.
It begins with the title track, a country-tinged story song that feels very much like a sequel to “Carolina Drama” (the best track, I think, on the Raconteurs’ underrated “Consolers Of The Lonely”), rich with the imagery and swagger of mid-‘70s Dylan. Then there are two extraordinary piano numbers, around which the whole album hinges: “Hypocritical Kiss” and “Weep Themselves To Sleep”, the latter a wonderfully bombastic examination/indictment of male vanity (“And men who fight the world and love the girls the girls that try to hold their hand behind them”) that’s also blessed with the album’s best and most indignant guitar solo.
The piano that runs through these two is as much like that of Mike Garson as Nicky Hopkins, which made me think a fair bit of certain neglected congruencies between White and David Bowie. Those are moved on, anyhow, by the sensational “I’m Shakin’” cover and another piano shitkicker, “Trash Tongue Talker”, which features the guitarist from Jeff The Brotherhood among other excellent musicians, but recalls, variously, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” and, as White himself is happy to point out, James Booker.
After that, there’s “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy”, a rackety New Orleans piano nursery rhyme that might just be the catchiest song on “Blunderbuss”, as well as a rant against hipster posturing and roleplay that reads more self-knowingly than White would probably admit; and a downhome old-time waltz, “I Guess I Should Go To Sleep”, assisted this time by Pokey Lafarge and his band.
Waltzes recur throughout “Blunderbuss”, not least on the closing “Take Me With You When You Go”; a song which, along with the shimmering “On And On And On” which precedes it, provide a kind of dreamlike resolution. Among all its other pleasures, “Blunderbuss” has a neat narrative arc, which seems to leave White – or, let’s be scrupulous about this, his protagonist – possessed of a new, contemplative level of self-knowledge. A mature piece of work, you could say, and a terrific album.
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