Album of the week : Blunderbuss - Jack White

The first line of Blunderbuss, the debut solo album by former White Stripes singer-guitarist Jack White, arrives with a lyrical punch in the face: “I was in the shower, so I could not tell my nose was bleeding,” he sings. After such a greeting, can’ you help but wonder about the journey ahead. How will the 36-year-old fare over the next 13 songs when he’s already drawn his own blood?

Pretty damn well as it turns out

Over the past 15 years White has been busy to say the least, first with erstwhile bandmate Meg White and then with numerous side projects  — with Loretta Lynn and the Dowhaters, The Raconteurs, Danger Mouse, The Dead Weather, to name a few. With Blunderbuss, White takes centre stage, as maestro and prima donna, sharing control with no one and the spotlight only sparingly

On Blunderbuss, the Detroit-born, Nashville-based White focuses on the pre-computer, post-hippie era of music, circa 1970-75, a style mastered by the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Mott the Hoople, the Who and, most obviously, the Faces. Just as in the late 1960s when a new generation of axmen stepped in to carry the mantle of early blues guitarists Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, White’s obsession with the music and its history is in service of this tradition

Behind every great Jack White track there is a great woman, and he knows it. A nameless “she” haunts these songs as both his muse, his personal demon and, frequently, his accompanist. On the blazing ‘Sixteen Saltines’, which is essentially a collection of supremely awesome couplets (She doesn’t know but when she’s gone I’m gonna sit and drink up a few / I’m sure she’s drinking too but I’m wondering for what and who), he examines his feeling for the femme fatale, who might be his ex-wife, Karen Elson; his ex-wife/sister/ex-drummer, Meg; or some new terror. But it seems increasingly likely that the woman in question is metaphoric: the red-headed personification of not only his happiness but his aforementioned self-flagellation as a means to holiness

The theme continues on the first single from Blunderbuss, ‘Love Interruption’, which blends the blues rock sound with a hint of something from the 1950s and ’60s in country music, an influence that is to be expected of White’s Nashville locale. The vintage harmonies White creates with guest vocalist Ruby Amanfu pull you through the song that asks for a romance that would be remembered later, and fondly, with such adjectives as ‘explosive’, ‘whirlwind’, and ‘destructive’. “I want love to roll me over slowly, stick a knife inside me and twist it all around,” is the opening lyric, and the situation just seems to go downhill for White from there

A boisterous suspended cymbal and piano marriage finds a comfortable home in the midsection of the album. ‘Hypocritical Kiss’ crescendos to a cacophonous swell, as piano played as percussion is joined by crashing suspended cymbals and then fades out in a series of glissandos. Piano melodies often arrive, not with a pounce, but in tinkling cascades, though the key tones on ‘Weep Themselves to Sleep’ are interchangeably sprightly and maniacal. Song meters tend towards swing and waltz, especially on ‘I Guess I Should Go to Sleep’ and the thrilling prog-epic ‘Take Me with You When You Go’

On the delirious Little Willie John rave-up ‘I’m Shakin’,” Samson bolts from Delilah even though he knows her embrace is well worth the haircut. “No responsibility, no guilt or morals cloud her judgment/ smile on her face, she does what she damn well please,” White sings on ‘Freedom at 21′, drawing a provocative straight line from feminism to moral decay. His tormentor is set loose to rampage thanks to her “freedom in the 21st century.” Blunderbuss’ misogyny is so cartoonish that it wraps right around and becomes feminism. It’s Jack’ beautiful dark emasculatory fantasy. White comes off as a nasty 36-year-old boy scorned. His nemesis is as unfathomable as she is powerful. His best and only recourse is to tug at ponytails. What else can he do?

Much as you want to sing praises to Jack White’s expert musicianship (the sudden and ecstatic double-time interludes on ‘Trash Tongue Talker’) and inventive lyricism, it’s best just to lose yourself in the sensations of the music. Why over think music this great? Blunderbuss’ best tracks, such as ‘Hypocritical Kiss’, ‘On and On and On’, ‘Love Interruption’, and ‘Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy’ demand that you stop, listen, and experience them. Actually, the entire album demands it

On Blunderbuss, White has proved he’s not only the inheritor of a tradition but also a remarkable, if bloodied, ambassador. It is, quite simply, a marvellous rock album

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May 11, 2012

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