Album: Jack White, "Blunderbuss" (Third Man)
One of these days Jack White will actually make a solo record on purpose, and the world will probably never be the same again.
Until that day comes, however, we'll have to content ourselves with near-misses like "Blunderbuss," which offers the tantalizing promise of shambling mounds of raw talent scuttling across White's vast ocean floor of creation, with frustrating glimpses of massive diamonds buried under equally enormous heaps of mud. There are 15-second stretches on "Blunderbuss" where you are certain you are witnessing the Second Coming of Rock 'n Roll; there are five-minute-long stretches where you are inclined to get up and answer the mail. It's that kind of album.
"Sixteen Saltines" certainly won't disappoint the White Stripes faithful, who will likely (and maybe correctly) regard this as the first "real" White creation since that legendary band called it a day; rather than burying himself in the work of others, sublimating his own, well, Jack Whiteness for the sake of a nebulous and fleeting sense of band camaraderie, White heads straight for "Seven Nation Army" territory here: "Well every morning I deliver the news" White deadpans over a screaming feedback and a decidedly un-icky thump from his drum kit; "black hat, white shoes and read all over," going on to extol the mysterious virtues of a woman so desirable she can make a man eat saltine crackers in his own bed. It's at this time you hear the "future or r'n'r" bit, and if it sounds like the Stripes with a bit more rhythm in the rhythm section (sorry Meg), well, then that's what it sounds like.
"Freedom at 21" eases up on the lever; the middle section approaches "rap" (or at least auctioneering patter), and illustrates what brought White to the table where the plans for "Blunderbuss" were laid out in the first place: a planned collaboration with Wu-Tang's RZA that never materialized. Now that would have been fascinating. White, sensing he had free time for the first time in 30, 31 years, penned the entire album while sitting on a stool in the studio, in between doing NY Times crossword puzzles and finishing off telephone-book-sized volumes of Sudoko books. He also washed and waxed his Hyundai Elantra. By himself. Then this song appeared. It's pretty average, but look at what it took to get here.
"Love Interruption" was the album's first single, and it's almost a tribute song...it feels like a gear stuck somewhere between Dylan and Dusty Springfield in the year 1966. It also sounds like White is still riding the same sort of retro-modernity wave he surfed with Danger Mouse on last year's "Rome." The record's title track is similarly regressive, but the vibe here is "Nashville Skyline" without the cooing over Bob's weird new voice. "Hypocritical Kiss" is expansive, soulful and acoustic, led by an almost over-preening piano, if a piano could preen. It's the same sort of territory Jack and Meg explored on "Get Behind Me Satan," the band's least appreciated and probably most misunderstood work. It's not gentle -- "And who the hell's impressed by you?" White asks; "you would sell your own mother out, then betray your dead brother with a hypocritical kiss" -- but then again, White is no chin-stroking soul-gazer, even when he drops the tempo down to a gentle shush and turns the knobs on the guitars down to "reasonable".
Then there's "Weep Themselves to Sleep," which is frankly kind of a over-long yawner with silly lyrics ("No one can blow the shows or throw the bones that break your nose like I can") until White cuts in 2:44 with a preposterous, flickering guitar solo that wages a crackling war between speakers left and right. The song ends with a clever piano fill that -- combined with the guitar crack -- almost elevates it to a higher shelf than it really belongs.
Of "I'm Shakin'" and "Trash Tongue Talker," the less said the better. They both represent tossaway bar band material, but the latter is especially bad and includes forty percent lyrics involving monkeys. It also sounds like he's trying to be Dr. John here, which is the area on the map that should be clearly marked "Jack White, Turn Around, 1 Mile Ahead." The set closes with a four-minute epic, "Take Me With You When You Go," which is part Allman Brothers and part "Bohemian Rhapsody." It closes the album not with a whimper or a roar but with the playfulness of a jam session, and if that seems weird, you've not been paying attention to this Jack White person for very long. The title comes from the old name for a muzzle-loading rifle, a name that derived from and conflated a Dutch phrase about thunder with a pioneer's intent to confuse and dazzle. The shots fired from a blunderbuss are not very accurate, but they could land anywhere within White's field of vision. You'd better hide just to be on the safe side.
Still, it's this late section, for the larger part, that drags the album into the merely "excellent" realm. When it's good it's brilliant and when it's bad, well, there were probably important crossword puzzles that needed to get done. It's this sort of suggested detachment from his own genius that drives White's critics mad, of course, since it's become obvious he doesn't especially care.
You strap yourself into his seat, though, for the brief moments, the awesome spectacle of an exploding propane tank, or the reckless abandon of an Olympic snowboarder. Anything could go wrong and probably will, but when it all clicks into place, no matter how fleeting the sensation ultimately turns out to be, it's the most magical thing you can imagine.