RIP Jack White
This is not a hit job.
I know what you're thinking: Re-Critic is using the spotty reception of a divisive work by a high-profile artist in order to capitalize on those sweet sweet clicks. But that's not what this is. First of all, we don't measure things in "clicks" around here - if I had a goal to hit that was based on "clicks", I would have given this up long ago from sheer exhaustion. To state it plainly though, I don't like Boarding House Reach, Jack White's new album and third solo outing. I don't think it's newsworthy that I don't like it, so that's not really the direction I'm going here. The reality is that White has amassed an empire of "cool" that stretches from his well-chronicled lowly beginnings in the Hotel Yorba to a diverse portfolio that includes but is not limited to a successful label, retail stores, a subscription service, a baseball bat imprint, and even his own record-pressing plant. He's made millions off his music, and a few hundred off me personally by way of CDs, records, miscellaneous other merch, concert tickets, etc. So if I have harsh opinions, it has no bearing on his status or success.
But I've earned those opinions. I was here for The White Stripes when they were a weird Blues duo that seemed scrappy and unique but destined to fade in the shadow of an early-aughts rock-n-roll revival led by The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I was here for The Go, which featured White playing in a four-piece that seemed more suited to the aforementioned climate right down to its motorcycle-jacket DNA but failed to make much of a dent anywhere despite a Sub Pop pedigree. I was here for The Raconteurs and their affiliated acts, I was here for The Dead Weather and their blisteringly gothic hard rock, I was here for Blunderbuss and Lazaretto. I was here for White cultivating an odd mystery about his real relationship to Meg (White, formerly of The White Stripes) that seemed then and now to serve no purpose beyond myth-building, and I was here for him punching that Von Bondies guy in the nose to prove his badass bona fides (and anyway I always thought that guy had a mild case of what doctors call "Punchable Face Syndrome").
I've been here for all of it, and I don't care for Boarding House Reach, and it's not just because the album is "different" and "experimental" (insert emphatic eye-roll here). BHR is difficult, many other reviews have picked up on that as well, but that isn't its tragic flaw. It's inconsistent and illogical and sometimes downright dopey, but all these things could be forgiven in a different context. It's playfully built on top of a base that isn't strong enough to bear the weight of its own irony and zig-zagging, but many other albums have similar issues and still manage to be at least likable. To be sure, there are moments to relish here, but they are exactly that: moments adrift in an sea of erstwhile randomness. "Respect Commander" is altogether interesting as a sonic experiment; "Corporation" has some fun with a "Who's with me?" premise that works despite itself; "Connected By Love" is serviceable for what it is. Perhaps the best example of how moments overshadow the LP's overall cohesion is the fact that the album's best moment happens in its final minute: the finale "Humoresque" ends on a piano/drum jazz phrase that delights in all the right ways, and just as I am getting into it…the album is over. One moment outshining the rest of the song, and most of the rest of the entire project.
But my real problem with BHR is that in the run-up to its release, White made some bold claims about the album, the state of rock-n-roll as an art form, and his own artistic past that, at best, don't make a lot of sense, but at worst, could be construed to be not only insensitive to others but almost nihilistically ignorant to the things that he himself has helped to build in terms of rock music and indie culture in general. Am I holding the art accountable to the opinions of the artist? Sure I am, I wouldn't deny that. But I don't think that it's unfair here, chiefly because the artist's opinions have informed so much of my respect for the music up until this point. Turnabout is fair play, as the saying goes.
White made headlines a short while back when during an interview with Rolling Stone, he said that "there is a case to be made that in a lot of ways, the White Stripes is Jack White solo. In a lot of ways." This is…problematic. For starters, the math doesn't add up: if it were true that the product of the White Stripes was essentially the same as what he would have created as a solo artist, then it would follow that the music he makes as a solo artist would fall in line with the sound of the White Stripes at a rate higher than what we can see and hear across his three solo albums. Are there similarities? Of course there are, it stands to reason. And I wouldn't even argue that his creative energy wasn't the driving impetus behind his old primary band - his melodies, his arrangements, his lyrics, his ungodly guitar talent, his stage presence, his aesthetic sense… I will gladly concede that his individual contributions to the White Stripes were much more than half. But the thing about art is that it doesn't happen in a vacuum. What he accomplished as one half of the White Stripes was made in the context of a band. The work was calculated to draw upon very specific identifiers that only worked when the White Stripes used them. It was elevated, or perhaps even lowered, in complexity and timing and melodic temperament in a way that would work for the band. Boarding House Reach makes it clear that Jack White has a lot of whacky ideas about music, which is fine. But he could have never made those songs in the White Stripes, because they wouldn't have made any damn sense in that context.
As a side note to this, let's be real about one other thing. The White Stripes was a band made of exactly two people. If one of them, years later, starts volleying incendiary comments over the bow of the H.M.S. Rolling Stone about how they themselves were the only essential creative component of the band, then there is really only one person they are trying to hurt. This whole line of thought is laughable, but the fact that it seems to be coming from a place of such pettiness and potential grudge-holding makes it more than just another "Artists Be Crazy" moment. As a fan of the White Stripes myself, I find it troubling that White seems to think their history is ripe for such blatantly self-serving revisionism.
Shortly before that, Jack made some comments on a radio show, and I'm just going to reprint them here so the full context is presented exactly as it was reported:
Rock ‘n’ roll needs an injection of some new young blood to really just knock everybody dead right now. It think it’s brewing and brewing and it’s about to happen, and I think that it’s good. Since rock ‘n’ roll’s inception, every 10, 12 years, there’s a breath of fresh air…some sort of what you could I guess call “punk attitude” or something like that, a wildness. Things get crazy and then they’re crazy for a couple years, and then they kind of get subtle. And then you’ve gotta wait for the next wave to come through and get people really excited and screaming about it again. We see it at Third Man all the time, a lot of young rock ’n’ roll acts, and I can tell in the last couple years it’s definitely different than it was five years ago. So I can tell something’s about to explode again.
Where to begin with this. On so many levels, this seems just so fucking galactically out of touch, but I'll only go into a little bit of it here. Firstly, acknowledging that rock-n-roll tends to move in cycles doesn't make someone a great philosophizer. It just means that they have been alive for longer than 20 years and that they have listened to music that was made before they were born. This isn't insight, it's ventriloquism from a feedback loop perpetuated by that very same Rolling Stone and their ilk. But passing off lazy thinking as informed punditry isn't a crime, it's just annoying. What really bothers me about it is that it sounds like something that an entitled white rock star would have said in the year 2001. Picture Don Henley (or whoever floats your boat) saying this, and fully believing it, while being completely oblivious to bands -like the White Stripes! - who were exactly what he was talking about. There are always young bands out there gigging, there are always indie labels pushing new and creative work, there are always scenes to be a part of whether in person or online. If you truly don't believe that the next rock savant is already out there and making music, then it's because you're not paying attention. And while this logical fallacy would be expected in most fortysomething rock stars, it stings a little bit more when it comes from White because there was a time when he too was bubbling up from nowhere while people talked about the depressed state of rock-n-roll at that moment.
We expect artists to have goals for their work. Personally, I would only take a piece of art seriously if I knew or suspected there was a reason for its being. This next quote comes to us from yet another Rolling Stone interview (I don't have anything against RS, except everything, but I digress): "I wanted to take punk, hip-hop and rock & roll, and funnel it all into a 2018 time capsule." Sigh. Let's just forget for a second that what this statement really relates is a desire to be all things to all people but yet totally of-the-moment, which is lunacy even if it's well-meaning. Let's take the man at his word and assume that he wants to put these genres (and others, as is made plain from listening to BHR) into some magical centrifuge to make something that is equal parts of all and yet can't be called any one of them. It is a noble endeavor, in a way, but misguided. If we do believe that this is the goal of the album, then Jack White is just one more Don Quixote with a dream of unifying all music fans under his umbrella - less tilting at windmills and more using them to power his all-inclusive Coachella. I don't know how simply I can say this: if you make a fortune as a rock star, you should probably just ride that out. No one is clamoring to Third Man Records to get Jack White's interpretation of hip-hop. Very few of us are waiting with bated breath for him to release his definitive "punk" statement. In his defense, this is a promise he makes good on in Boarding House Reach, as it contains almost none of the dynamic guitar riffing that made him famous. "Over and Over and Over" tries for it, albeit limply, but it seems we can probably stop holding out whatever collective hope we may have had for the guitar-murdering sequel to "Catch Hell Blues". As a "rock" album, it is easily his weakest one yet, which could be partly because the record serves too many masters, as explained in that bonkers mission statement.
These are the reasons I can't see Boarding House Reach as much more than the product of an icon who has become so comfortable in his iconic status that he seems to want to blow it all up by minimizing his past work with other artists and by repositioning himself as not only the savior of Rock, but a messianic figure for Music writ large. History is littered with the detritus of geniuses who wanted so badly to buck against the establishment that they bucked against themselves and their own legacies, seemingly content to while away the years on the fringes of music, relegated there after relinquishing their once-important voices and visions to something so idiosyncratic as to be no longer even recognizable, let alone relatable. It is not my place to criticize that as an artistic choice and I am not the sort of person who would do so even if it somehow were. At the end of the day I respect these choices, but I do so with an interpretation of what it means in the context of not only the scene right now, but also the past work that's being denigrated to some degree, and the possibility of what it could mean for the artist's future. To be fair, BHR is, when taken by itself, really only a minor artistic mis-step that could have been a blip on an otherwise uninterrupted trajectory for the artist himself. But Jack White's weirdly inexplicable attitudes about how he got to where he is and the fact that he seems to be trying to push a nothingburger LP as the next All-Time Classic might prove to be catastrophic to his own brand, a brand built on a foundation of undisputed relevance, a relevance he achieved on a high level that doesn't have many historical analogues for its endurance over such a long period of time. Relevance is a fickle son of a bitch, and those who take it for granted are typically the first ones to feel its wrath, even if they don't realize it as it's happening.
Jack White is the emperor effectively standing on a soapbox and regaling us with stories of how his new clothes have completely realigned his perception, fully expecting us to not point out that he's naked. But the agreed-upon relevance and importance that once cloaked his worst instincts are distant memories, and while he still dresses the part of the Last American Rock Star, he's no longer wearing those clothes.