Jack White is officially adrift, unmoored from his marriage (divorced last year from Karen Elsom) and his original band (the White Stripes, probably gone for good), and now he’s floating into new, solo territory for the first time. Of course, nothing is as straightforward as it seems with a man who has made a career from disinformation and carefully cultivated mystique. However, this time there’s just a suspicion that he might mean some of what he says literally.
Blunderbuss is all about arguments, fights, pain and love gone wrong. Some reviewers have compared it to Blood On The Tracks, which credits Jack White with a level of both self-flagellation and songwriting genius he can’t reasonably lay claim to. But it’s an intriguing and complex record, full of fascination and some frustration.
The fascination comes from the varied styles on show on Blunderbuss, from stripped back guitars and vocals to layered, complex numbers that sound at times like showtunes. The opening, title track, is surprisingly gentle for a song about the symbolic qualities of primitive weaponry. Strings, piano, acoustic guitar and female backing vocals amount to a polished production, rough edges lovingly smoothed away. The lyrics have Arabian Nights accoutrements, and the lyrics have the bittersweet allure of the true fairytale, moving in the course of a verse from “I laid you down and touched you like the two of us both needed” to “Doin’ what two people need is never on the menu.”
The tempo, if not the mood, shifts straight away into something more familiar to lovers of White Stripes no frills blues rocking and killer riffs. ‘Freedom At 21’ is a corker, crackling with feedback and positively teenage hyperactivity: “She don’t care what kind of bruises she’s leaving on me / she don’t care what kind of wound she’s giving me / cos she got freedom in the 21st century.” The energy hurts and thrills in equal measure.
‘Love Interruption’ is a poised, bluesy track that’s mostly hate, but with love lingering in the margins. Jack’s vocals are shadowed throughout by a female voice (Ruby Amanfu), rendering lyrics such as “Yeah I want love to / change my friends to enemies / and show my how it’s all my fault” pregnant with double meaning. The single, ‘Sixteen Saltines’, is loud and jumping, sounding more like White Stripes than anything else on the album. It observes “Sharp heels make holes in a lifeboat’, but the observer is a jealous, vengeful teen.
‘Missing Pieces’ has blistering guitar and Meg White-esque Animal drums drive a tale of ice cubes, love notes and an unhappy endings with a killer lyric: ‘When people say they just can’t live without you / they lie and take pieces of you’.
Not everything retains the simplicity that made it so hard to forget White Stripes tracks. ‘I Guess I Should Go Back to Bed’, for example, with its tinkling, cocktail bar ivories, may well be have been discarded by The Magnetic Fields as too directionless and whimsical. ‘Trash Tongue Talker’ is exceptionally camp, and ends up sounding like a parody of the rest of the record. The raw qualities of some of the songs on Blunderbuss are occluded by the sheer engineering effort on display. Much of the record is a long way from vintage amps and analogue recording studios, but the tracks that sounds more like the Stripes and less like Rufus Wainwright work the best.
Throwing up obligatory chaff to distract listeners seeking some final truth in these songs, Karen Elsom sings backing vocals on three of these tracks, which can only add to the murky territory Blunderbuss inhabits, somewhere between real and fictional experience. This confusion extends to the cover where Jack, raven on shoulder, bears a strong resemblance to the Cure’s Robert Smith. It’s not clear whether this is intentional.
Blunderbuss, despite overdoing it in places, is an album that delivers the good. The best tracks on here are classic stuff, and Jack White’s songwriting inventiveness seems to have found an outlet unavailable through his other bands, Dead Weather and The Raconteurs. He straddles the territory separating genius from ludicrous, but his heightened self-awareness is enough to rein him in when things get too silly, most of the time at least.