Jack White had the number-one album in the country last month with the beautiful, bereft Blunderbuss. The eccentric White—who imitated Cab Calloway at the turn of the last century, played a junkyard guitar at the Grammys, and used his increasing clout to produce records by living relics like Wanda Jackson and Tom Jones—is now, inexplicably, a bona fide star in contemporary pop. In a career defying expectations, on his first solo album—that most reviled of endeavors—White has made his best batch of songs since the White Stripes’s 2005 effort, Get Behind Me Satan.
“I was in the shower so I could not tell my nose was bleeding,” White sing-stutters at the opening of Blunderbuss, propelled by a dueling organ/guitar combo. Recalling a pool of blood at his feet, he admits, “I thought I had a disease.” In its clever morbidity, opener “Missing Pieces” works as a metaphor for emotional loss as the narrator is slowly decapitated. The following songs cope with that void, picking at will from the seven stages of grief, never veering from a portrait of a profoundly sick man.
Lead single “Love Interruption” is masochism over acoustic strumming. White pleads with love personified to beat him so that he might be freed from its allure. Among the manic musician/producer’s wishes: “Cover up my ears / And never let me hear a sound.” Only a dream allows him respite on the stunning title track. Backed by warm pedal steel guitar, he recalls romantic images of stealing a date and making a grand show of his affection. But he can’t help venting his frustration over others who hide their impulses better. “Such a trick pretending not to be doing what you want to / But seems like everybody does this every waking moment,” he shrugs. Even the MTV-approved video for “Sixteen Saltines” is bitter and gruesome, with Jack playing the last adult on Earth, bound by rope and set aflame (perhaps a wink to the previous single’s desire). Lyrically and visually, down to its chilly blue color scheme, Blunderbuss screams of tortured abandonment.
There has been much speculation about the album as therapy for the dissolution of both the White Stripes and White’s marriage to model-cum-musician Karen Elson. These debut songs are preoccupied with endings rather than beginnings. And it has been gleefully easy for critics to recall other so-called breakup records, particularly Blood on the Tracks by White’s friend Bob Dylan. But White has long grieved relationships that couldn’t embrace sepia-tinted social norms (he wrote a rollicking song about helping an unthankful girl over a puddle on the Stripes’s breakout White Blood Cells, and follow-up Elephant was dedicated in dramatic fashion to the “death of the sweetheart”). In addition, comparisons between Blunder and Blood are spurred by gossip and superficial details: the divorced troubadour author, forthright lyrics after albums of abstract artiness and folk heroics, even the Columbia logo on the album jacket. While Dylan regarded his album as a work of Chekhovian fiction, White has stressed Blunderbuss’s impersonal themes (technology and morality on the rocking “Freedom at 21,” hipsters and authenticity on the McCartney-esque “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy”). The effectiveness of both records resides in the artists’ casual yet spirited performances and the strength of their lovelorn songs more than any heartbreak that might have motivated them.
As White’s lyrics have become callous, his music has blossomed. Free of the restrictions and democratic collaboration of the Stripes, Blunderbuss is the sound of White directing a cavalcade of friends and Nashville ringers. Accents of honky-tonk, metal, and hip-hop waft out of his backyard studio. And his secret weapon—no, not the piercing, alien guitar attack, but the emotive piano-playing—dominates. The baroque rhapsody “Hypocritical Kiss” trades sparseness for a current of chiming keys; it is perhaps the most gorgeous thing the musician has put his name to.
Still, White has not fully overcome his weaknesses. Between moments of vulnerability and virtuosic playing, he falls victim to his reverence for the past. The one-two punch of “I’m Shakin’” and “Trash Tongue Talker” are fun imitations of golden-era rock and country standards but fail to become more than that. White fares better with mash-ups of old and new that prove he is a visionary with historic breadth, rather than a historian with limited vision.
Blunderbuss is the spawn of a failed attempt to record with RZA, as White has noted, but that failure proved a propitious step toward his own calculated rebirth. Near the end of the album, “On and On and On” bemoans the perpetual uncertainty of life over a sleepy hook. “I look at myself and I want to / Just cover my eyes and give myself a new name,” White sings. The White Stripes led upholsterer John Gillis to become rocker Jack White; a solo act now guarantees the restless artist another costume change. Left to his own strange devices, he has become that rarest figure in music: an interesting singer-songwriter.
JOE KLARL is listening to Skip James.