It’s amazing how long Jack White’s reign as king of rock n’ roll has lasted. Elephant, the album that made the White Stripes the biggest act in rock, turns 15 this year. Fifteen years, a break up, a handful of side projects, a record label and some ambitious solo releases later, Jack White still holds court as the only indisputable rock god remaining. This is where Boarding House Reach finds Jack White: bored, dicking around, alone at the top with seemingly nowhere else to go.
Jack White is now on his third solo release since the end of the White Stripes. Both 2012’s Blunderbuss and 2014’s Lazaretto were tightly constructed, if a little spotty in their execution. Though for the most part the catchy immediacy of the White Stripes was lost, both of them showed us what White was capable of producing when not tethered to the primal and primitive percussion of Meg White.
Lazaretto, in particular, is a tonally deep tour across classic American styles, pulling off blues (“Three Women”), folk (“Temporary Ground”) and Americana (“Want and Able”) while leaving room for classic Jack White garage-shakers like “Would You Fight For My Love” and “That Black Bat Licorice.” It was a healthily experimental album that occasionally got bogged in some of its less worthy ideas but more often than not delivered the goods. Boarding House Reach takes its cues from Lazaretto’s biggest swings (the title track and “High Ball Stepper”) but in so doing becomes completely untethered, leaving the listener with an album that is weird, wild, and ultimately not nearly as fun as it should be.
If Jack White’s previous solo work showed him dabbling in the roots of American music, Boarding House Reach features him playing around with more urban influences. There’s jazzy time signature fluxuations, P-Funk-style riff stacking, and bongos (oh lord, the bongos) throughout the album. There’s even a (blessedly) brief rap verse on “Ice Station Zebra,” a track that showcases both the best and worst of what this iteration of Jack White has to offer.
However, though he is drawing from new influences, Jack White is still Jack White. BHR contains some of the most innovative guitar playing White has ever recording, pushing new sounds at every turn. “Over and Over and Over” features perhaps the best guitar groove of White’s post-Stripes career, which is constantly and frustratingly interrupted by discordant choral backing vocals. That’s just the way things go on Boarding House Reach, where the ideas that work are rushed along in favor of dozens of ideas that don’t.
Perhaps the most perplexing decision on album full of head-scratchers was the call to make “Connected By Love” the lead single. An overlong and overwrought synth ballad, “Connected By Love” undersells the insanity that is to follow, and fails to make a compelling case for the album (as a good single should). Elsewhere, White repeatedly includes spoken word interludes between songs that leave more of an impression of an old man shaking his fist than of trippy mind expansion. Though the album does achieve what I imagine it’s intended effect must be occasionally, as on the maggot-brain-bender “Get In the Mind Shaft,” White seems incapable or unwilling to just turn out solidly written songs, preferring instead to tweak and subvert at every possible turn.
Boarding House Reach feels like a musical genius working very hard to convince you of his musical genius. The gut-level pleasures of the White Stripes are gone and have been for quite a while. In their place, Jack White has crafted something that is undoubtedly fascinating but only fleetingly satisfying. Look no further than “Hypermisophoniac” for proof of this, which features a stopping-starting synth line that is intentionally out of time with the rest of the song, a pretty cool fuzzed out bass, and starts with the sound of spray paint cans shaking (naturally). The end effect is somehow neither simply good nor bad, but somehow emphatically both. Above all else, it is a little admirable that Jack White refuses to rest on his laurels, and instead takes risks such like Boarding House Reach at a point his career where no risks need to be taken. It’s just a shame that those risks don’t translate to something that makes for better listening.
For fans of: Parliament-Funkadelic, The White Stripes (sort of), good artists taking a left turn
Our take: Risky, experimental outing; innovative guitar riffs; a swing and a miss