Rating:Blunderbuss, Jack White’s debut solo effort, is full of pleasantly wicked studio effects, melodramatic background vocals and pastiches of forgotten American musical genres. It is a deep, dark record, one that reflects the two major breakups White has recently gone through (his June 2011 divorce from British model Karen Elson and the disintegration of the White Stripes in the same year). The difference between Blunderbuss and other great odes to the anguish of failed relationships, take Blood on the Tracks or The Wrens’ Meadowlands, for instance, is that White sounds like he’s almost enjoying his suffering. The lyric sheet is filled with gloomy themes and symbolically violent imagery. But the music sounds like it was created by an artist whose studio served as a kind of playground in which no games were off limits. Every track is overflowing with a childlike exuberance for artistic exploration. More than the above mentioned “breakup classics,” Blunderbuss might best be compared to The White Album in its blending of seemingly disparate genres and tones. There’s plenty of the gritty emotional intensity of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” or “Yer Blues” here but also the spirited, modish appropriation of maligned or undervalued styles, as in “Martha My Dear” or “Good Night.”
Blunderbuss is more than just a sum of its diverse musical parts. The record’s distinctive feel, a difficult quality to explain, makes it utterly addictive. Listen to the way the band gently eases into the main groove of “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” after the baroque-waltz introduction, as if they are learning the tune as they go. Album opener “Missing Pieces” starts with an asymmetrical Fender Rhodes melody that sounds like it could be ripped from a Mahavishnu Orchestra fusion record. “I Guess I Should Go to Sleep,” the album’s most countrified tune, starts with a snappy, chromatic piano part that could serve as accompaniment to a silent movie. The haunting steel guitar melody at the start of “On and On and On” leads to an acoustic bass line that has the loose swing of great jazz. These moments of legitimate surprise pepper the entire record and keep the listener wanting more.
The outright joy in the music tempers the sometimes violent intensity of the lyrics. Opener “Missing Pieces” imagines a lover symbolically taking White’s body parts with her when she leaves him. On single “Sixteen Saltines,” he imagines a girl’s spike heels making “a hole in the lifeboat.” “Freedom at 21” goes so far as to bemoan women’s rights in the modern world (“She don’t care what kind of wounds she’s inflicted on me/ She don’t care what color bruises that she’s leavin’ on me/ ‘Cause she’s got freedom in the 21st century.”) The songwriter gets into Jeff Tweedy-on-“Via Chicago” territory multiple times, suggesting that love is not a gentle emotion, but rather one that may “murder my own mother,” as he sings on “Love Interruption.”
White’s ability to write this intensely about the dire consequences of failed relationships while simultaneously delighting the hell out of the listener constitutes a small miracle. Album closer “Take Me with You When You Go” represents the apotheosis of this aesthetic approach. White pleads, in the company of female background vocalists employing an anachronistic, theatrical vibrato, “I’ve got nothing here but me, girl/ Take me with you when you go.” The pathos of this lyric is set against a multi-movement mini-masterpiece. It starts with a piano groove reminiscent of Dave Brubeck’s jazz hit “Take Five” before morphing into a more straightforward rock groove, complete with Zeppelin-inflected guitar solo, and finishing with a piano riff that sounds like it was lifted from an early Springsteen record. It’s one of the most ambitious pieces White has ever attempted.
The White Stripes, that most minimalistic of garage rock bands, were an experiment in how to do more with less. On Blunderbuss, White has proven that he can do even more with more. The track “On and On and On” contains the lyric, “The people around me/ Won’t let me become what I need to/ They want me the same …” Hopefully, after living with the delightful Blunderbuss, these people will realize the Jack White of the future is just as vital as the Jack White they have loved in the past.