Taking the dusty roots of classic rock—folk, country, R&B and of course the blues—and holding them in a garage-punk mirror that somehow renders them immediate and vital (or at least more timeless than retro) is a line running through all of 36-year-old auteur Jack White’s ever-curvy output. So it’s no surprise that his approach doesn’t significantly deviate on the first album released under his nom de rock, sans the covering guise of a carefully constructed, often color-coordinated vehicle like the White Stripes, the Raconteurs or Dead Weather.
The left turns on Blunderbuss, such as they are, include a lot more piano than guitar and flashes of a lyrical specificity unusual from such a celebrated craftsman of myths, mysteries and fabulous lies. But as an unexpected spice in a familiar stew, those tinkling ivories aren’t nearly as much fun as the marimba on Get Behind Me Satan. At times, they’re downright distracting: Witness the flamboyant keyboard runs in “Weep Themselves to Sleep.” Sure, there still are plenty of eruptions of six-string violence from one of the most distinctive guitarists in rock today, even in that tune. But, really, would too much of such a good thing ever be enough?
As for the theme this time around, critics and fans are having a grand ol’ time parsing the tunes for references to the dissolution of both the White Stripes and White’s marriage to singer and model Karen Elson, hoping perhaps for a whiff of that eternal blues-rock bugaboo, misogyny. While lines such as, “And you'll be watching me, girl/Taking over the world/Let the stripes unfurl/Getting’ rich, singin’ poor boy, poor boy” (from the jaunty honky-tonk ditty "Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy”) do seem to have a bit of “Take that, evil wench!” to them, White always has played with the eternal “girl did done me wrong” narratives of so much of his favorite music, alternately tempering the anger with an endearing vulnerability and a childlike naïveté. And, in a fascinating New York Times Magazine profile by Josh Eells, the artist said he set out to make an album about death as he was mourning the loss of his closest sibling, the older brother who instilled his enduring love of pop culture.
In the end, it hardly matters if White is evoking the death of a band, a love, a family member or the good ol’ days he celebrates with the vinyl output of his Third Man label and so many of the artifacts in his aesthetic universe. The music is a cathartic celebration of life, and the man delivers the goods, as he always has, with yet another set of passionate, memorable, raw yet tuneful anthems. And from the harrowing “Love Interruption” to the lilting title track, and from the shuffling, celebratory cover of Little Willie John’s “I’m Shakin’” to the rollicking “Trash Tongue Talker,” the majority of these songs are as strong as any White has given us.
Jack White, Blunderbuss (Third Man/Columbia)
Rating on the four-star scale: 3.5 stars.