Boarding House Reach is just crazy enough to make it work.
After 2012’s Blunderbuss and 2014’s Lazaretto, the recipe for a Jack White album was beginning to look distressingly like a formula: Take an obligatory blues guitar workout, a handful of spiky rockers and a smattering of country songs—at least one with off-puttingly sanctimonious lyrics—and wrap it all up with a single-word, polysyllabic title seemingly engineered to make listeners dust off their dictionaries. Neither of these albums was bad; but for listeners fond of the weird streak that made White the most consistently exciting of the early-noughts rock revivalists, it was a little disappointing to hear him tread into predictable territory.
Boarding House Reach, White’s third album as a solo artist, is many things—manic, uneven, a little unhinged—but “predictable” ain’t one of them. More than any of his manifold other projects, this one upends White’s reputation for sober, retro-minded craftsmanship, letting him loose in the studio with the same gleeful abandon he’s always exhibited on stage. Here, even the obligatory blues guitar workout, “Respect Commander,” is punctuated by the electronic bleats of what sounds like a Game Boy’s death throes; the requisite country ballad, “What’s Done Is Done,” scores its stark Southern Gothic murder narrative with a warbling MIDI patch straight out of a cult video game soundtrack. And the frenetic semi-instrumental “Corporation” sounds less like the White Stripes than Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion—not the highest praise, maybe, but it’s still fun to hear White cut loose for a change.
Other sounds on the album are new to White’s sonic palette entirely: woozy P-Funk on “Hypermisophoniac,” electronic Vocoder-and-synth-funk on “Get in the Mind Shaft” and even demented white hip-hop on “Ice Station Zebra.” Yes, Jack White raps on this album, and the astounding thing is that it actually kind of works. Boarding House Reach isn’t just White’s most interesting solo work, it’s also a better Beck album than the last three actual Beck albums.
Not all of Boarding House Reach is as thrilling as these highlights, of course. The lo-fi gospel pastiche “Connected by Love” has the dubious distinction of being both the weakest lead single and the weakest side one/track one in White’s 20-year career; the violin-laden Spaghetti Western pastiche “Abulia and Akrasia,” with guest pontifications by Australian bluesman C.W. Stoneking, feels like one indulgence too far. But the album’s anything-goes recklessness is exactly the shot in the arm White needed to avoid creative stagnation. That much is evident from the story behind “Over and Over and Over”: the most conventional “Jack White” song here, written for the White Stripes in 2005 and shelved after attempts to record it with both the Raconteurs and Jay-Z—until, presumably, an appropriate context could be found for its hyperactive punk-prog-metal delirium. Boarding House Reach is just crazy enough to make it work—and with this as his point of departure, it’s now refreshingly impossible to predict where White will go next.