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Jack White, as one-half of the garage rock outfit The White Stripes, was freakishly confident and youthful. His music felt way more direct, experimental and “in your face” than a two-person, blues-rooted group should muster.
The song “Ball and Biscuit” alone encompasses that cavalier nature, with its fuzzy, ad-libbed riff, member Meg White’s taciturn drumming and his use of loud, blistering solos for the hooks.
As The White Stripes no longer exist as a group, White has had time to tend to his label, Third Man Records, as well as to inquire within. His solo debut, “Blunderbuss,” displays not only a fuller and more mature sound, but his mundane and passive outlook on life despite past successes.
Fame and fortune clearly do not suffice as an end to life, but for a person who spent their ambitious career as the sole progenitor of their entire body of work, White portrays a very surprising dissolution and helplessness to it all. That, however, has not translated into rigidly skeletal instrumentation or laconic and uninspired lyrics. The country-style musical palette White has employed lends a warmer, more emotional tone to his usually raw sound by including intimate acoustic guitar, prominent, almost vaudevillian piano work, rustic pedal steel guitar and more elaborate percussion than usually expected from his previous projects.
In turn, White’s lyrics have a very poetic feel that personifies his somber demeanor. The words lack catchy hooks and utilize profound, at times disturbing, imagery. The first track, “Missing Pieces,” details a Kafkaesque scene where things seem either out of place or horribly awry: “I woke up and my hands were gone, yeah/I looked down and my legs were long gone…” He goes on to describe unrequited love on the high-octane “Sixteen Saltines.” He does away with naysayers on the lovingly rockabilly tune “Tongue Trash Talker” and even personifies love in an unsettling fashion on the deceitful “Love Interruption,” where White asks love to “change friends to enemies.”
The album’s running motif culminates on the song “On and On and On.” A weeping pedal steel opens the song, followed in suit by piano and brushed drums as White softly mumbles: “The sun and the moon never change, they just rearrange/the night and the new day.” An upright bass plods forth as he addresses his current worries of personal freedom, a lack of real direction, and possibly his fans and close friends hinder his progress.
White sings well on “On and On,” not forcing his peculiar voice to perform, but rather allowing his emotions to take control. He sings his best on the titular track, “Blunderbuss,” at times sounding close to tears from the distraught love affair. He tends to fumble, however when simply reading lines, which makes songs like “I Guess I Should Go to Sleep” and “Take Me With You When You Go” sound like dusty church hymns.
Those songs, along with practically every other song on “Blunderbuss,” still feature the great sound White formed for the album, and do not completely dampen the flow or feel. In fact, the album’s overall tone may throw Jack White fans off at first, especially if they longed for more crunchy garage tunes and absurd lyrics.
But multiple listens make it pretty clear that White needed a therapeutic release, aided by older and pastoral sounds. Whether he received that catharsis is uncertain, but his ability to produce high-quality, emotionally stimulating music has certainly improved.