Album review: Jack White's 'Blunderbuss'
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, one can’t 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?
Bodily concerns aside, White is a wonderfully creative historian who over the last 15 years has built an expanding empire — and a few distinctive bands — as a means to shine a light on American music. With the Stripes, he and drummer Meg White channeled blues riffs through DIY punk rock energy; as part of the four-man Raconteurs, he helps generate heavy power pop; and with the Dead Weather, he drums as Kills vocalist Alison Mosshart moans the blues.
He’s also done production work for, among others, Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson, and he runs a record label and store called Third Man. White’s a renaissance man to be sure, but he’s also a purist of sorts who fancies basic rock structures and tunings, and harbors a general disinterest in music-tech advances, artificial sounds or remixes.
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, all of whom started off in the world of aggressive British Invasion rock but stretched out with bigger, heavier sounds as they matured.
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.
White, along with the Black Keys, has filled a power vacuum that was created when baby boomer blues rockers retired (Jimmy Page), went soft (Rod Stewart), took to the state fair circuit (ZZ Top) or became parodies of themselves (Eric Clapton).
It is a little frustrating, though, that for all that scholarship, all that obvious appreciation and adoration, White’s music only gets as far as 1975 and, in fact, treats the succeeding 37 years as though they never happened. Unlike the Black Keys, whose affection for boundary-busting has led them to collaborate with rappers such as Mos Def and Talib Kweli and work with producer Dangermouse, White’s travels occur more onstage, as he moves from guitar to drums and from blues to power pop. He’s not similarly experimental.
Lyrically, though, “Blunderbuss” is a fearless and thrilling mess of thoughts about love and loss and life. After the bloody beginning, things just get weirder.
“No one can blow the shows/Or throw the bones/That break your nose/Like I can,” he sings on “Weep Themselves to Sleep” as drummer Carla Azar (known locally for her work with Autolux) creates crazy rhythms and cymbal crashes and pianist Brooke Waggoner conjures Stones’ keyman Ian Stewart.
On “Sixteen Saltines,” he sings of high school locker decorations, delivering metaphorical newspapers into pink mailboxes, and salty crackers. During “On and On and On” he risks ridicule by penning, “The sun and the moon never change/they just rearrange,” but pulls it off.
But when he sings on the album’s stunning closer, “Take me with you when you go,” it’s a rare and revealing moment that penetrates his carefully crafted mystique by alluding to his recent divorce.
“Blunderbuss” is, quite simply, a marvelous rock album — one that, along with the Black Keys’ “El Camino” and Gary Clark Jr.’s self-titled teaser EP in advance of his Warner Bros. debut this fall, is injecting energy into an ancient art form. In fact, 2012 is shaping up to be a year in which hard electric guitar and compact three-minute rock songs are thriving in the underground through the work of Ty Segall, Hanni el Khatib and the Strange Boys, among hundreds of others.
And on “Blunderbuss,” White has proved why he’s not only the inheritor of a tradition but also a remarkable, if bloodied, ambassador.
Three-and-a-half stars (out of four)
-- Randall Roberts @liledit