The sleeve of Jack White’s recent single “Sixteen Saltines” shows the man in a mirror, a straight razor near his neck. Two signs sandwich his reflected face. They read: “IF YOU TALK TOO MUCH… THIS MAN MAY DIE!”
The image references an actual WWII poster from 1943 that encouraged soldiers to be mindful of giving up important information. And, for White’s first proper solo endeavor, the image couldn’t be more suiting and cleverly self-aware; will his entrance into the typically-confessional solo realm effectively kill the mythical Jack White, the red, white, and black virtuoso who’s captured our imagination more than any other rock star over the last 10 years?
The fascination with White has endured partly thanks to his mastery of traditional rock’n’roll skills: power, volume, dexterity, charisma. But his talent for untangling and confusing those same tried-and-true ideas is just as vital. He’s playing a frightfully sincere take on the blues wearing frightfully silly outfits. He’s singing truth and authenticity while fibbing about his backstory. He increasingly seems like a legacy-minded, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame buff, and yet is prone to whimsical novelty like releasing a single via balloons… He’s famously tough to pin down and, at a time when more people are going out of their way to define themselves on a minute-to-minute basis, this slipperiness holds a heightened currency and inherent mystery.
So while Blunderbuss is the first album with the words “Jack White” on the album cover, it’s not exactly a great unveiling. After all, Jack White was born John Anthony Gillis; White’s idol and friend (and fellow confuser) Bob Dylan was born Robert Allan Zimmerman. Talking about reading Dylan’s memoir to The Guardian, White said, “It was painful– it would bring me to tears or it was like looking in the mirror. It was like a son that had never met his dad.” Considering the kinship, an old Dylan quote from 1978 seems particularly relevant; when he was asked about his “purpose,” Bob quoted Henry Miller: “The role of an artist is to inoculate the world with disillusionment.” And indeed, Blunderbuss is filled with White’s own disenchantment. He’s loathe to talk about the personal-life specifics behind his songs, of course, but it’s hard to ignore two major events that occurred in the months leading up to the album’s creation last year: the dissolution of the White Stripes as well as his marriage to model and singer Karen Elson. As White skips eclectic through early rock, folk, and country styles in a casual and capable fashion reminiscent of The White Album, he moans of voids and angst and violence. Just as we’re sucked in by his unknowableness, this meticulous artist is drawn to the things he can’t quite get his head around, too.
Jack White – Sixteen Saltines
In Josh Eells’ brilliant recent New York Times Magazine profile, White opened up about the inner workings of his old band. “Meg completely controlled the White Stripes,” he said. “She’s the most stubborn person I’ve ever met, and you don’t even get to know the reasons. That band is the most challenging, important, fulfilling thing ever to happen to me. It’s something I really, really miss.” That kind of poignant frustration can be heard throughout Blunderbuss, though, true to form, White often masks these crushed feelings with bouncy instrumentation and arrangements. This juxtaposition is most pronounced on the album’s most hummable track, “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy”, a self-deprecating juke-joint number in which he manages to kiss off himself and, quite possibly, his former bandmate/sister/wife. Along with mentions of “using your name” (Jack got his surname from Meg), he sings, “And you’ll be watching me, girl/ Taking over the world/ Let the stripes unfurl/ Gettin’ rich, singin’ poor boy.” Only a few people know precisely how cutting the song is, but its playful defensiveness carries an undeniable sting. It also features the best and simplest explanation for White’s extreme work ethic thus far: “But I can’t sit still/ Because I know that I will.”
More often, though, White sings about a vaguer, deeper emptiness. “But sometimes these feelings can be so misleading,” he admitted on “Fell in Love With a Girl”. Now, he sounds like he’s through being misled– he’s more fallen than fell. On the simmering, slyly threatening “Love Interruption”, he’s fed up: “I want love to grab my fingers gently/ Slam them in a doorway/ And put my face into the ground.” It isn’t some masochistic fantasy as much as a form of self discipline. “I won’t let love disrupt, corrupt, or interrupt me anymore,” he concludes. The sentiment dovetails with another quote from the Times piece. “I’ve always felt it’s ridiculous to say, of any of the females in my life: You’re my friend, you’re my wife, you’re my girlfriend, you’re my co-worker,” he said. “This is your box, and you’re not allowed to stray outside of it.” But this post-love ideal sounds like wishful thinking in the context of Blunderbuss— not to mention White’s well-noted affection for hard structure and self-limitation– which uses the breakup emotions of hurt and fear to get its best points across.
Jack White – Love Interrupted
Opener “Missing Pieces” has White bleeding and losing appendages after an unwanted departure. He’s beaten up and forced to walk on salt with bottomless feet by what seems like the entire iPhone generation on the rumbling “Freedom at 21”, a song that perfectly fits the video for “Sixteen Saltines”, which has him consumed by a chaotic world filled with kids. At 36, this is Jack White battling with his encroaching elder-statesman role, knowing the odds aren’t in his favor. He’s trembling in front of an almighty Delilah on a cover of the Little Willie John track “I’m Shakin'”, a song that– like much of the album– finds White backed by a group of highly qualified women (including Elson). Though the high-wire element that fueled the White Stripes is absent here, the female accompaniment suggests White knows what brings out the best in him– even when he’s pleading about the infinite pain brought upon him by the opposite sex. He might be vengeful but he’s not dumb.
Within White’s oeuvre, Blunderbuss hangs in a kind of limbo– it’s closer to earth than his fantastic White Stripes yet further away than the sometimes-pedestrian Raconteurs or Dead Weather. It’s got some of his best pure songwriting yet, but no earth-cracking riffs. Still, as a treatise on loss and its schizophrenic aftermath, Blunderbuss is a purposeful success. The eloquent title track dreams up a love affair where White, finally, gets the girl. But there are complications– she already happens to be spoken for. Slide guitar smudges the picture as White wishes for a world based on desire instead of consequence. Throwing his hands up, he finishes the song: “Doing what two people need is never on the menu.” The veracity of the tale is anybody’s guess. Its disillusionment, though, is real.