There’s a popular view of Jack White. It’s one that casts him as a crotchety nostalgist, sitting in a wooden cabin surrounded by tape reels, with two tin cans and a string in place of a phone and a three-mile restraining order on anyone with a Facebook profile. It’s a reputation that people love and loathe in equal measure. For the acolytes, he’s a purist to be held aloft in these increasingly fickle and transient musical times; a man so devoted to the vinyl cause that he started an entire empire (Third Man Records) in celebration of it. For the naysayers, he’s a cartoonish regressive killjoy, with no concept of modern pleasures. But either way, he’s a man whose work always comes preloaded with expectation. People think they know Jack White. People think they’ve got his schtick nailed.
It’s why the genuine oddness of ‘Boarding House Reach’ – Jack’s third solo album away from his many and various successful bands – is such a delight. True, it’s palpably the work of the Detroit star - from start to finish, his wired electricity is shot throughout. But it’s no nostalgic safe bet. Because what those preconceptions rarely factor in is that, far from your average sepia-tinged muso, Jack is and always has been a true weirdo with a brain that operates like no other. And here, he’s on gloriously eccentric form.
Preceding singles ‘Connected By Love’ – a relatively straight-forward, rootsy offering, albeit one underpinned by wobbling, buzzing noise – and ‘Corporation’’s largely instrumental, howling jam might have hinted at a reasonably disparate record, but among ‘BHR’’s capering 13 tracks, they’re only the beginning. ‘Abulia and Akrasia’ is a 90-second Argentine tango with a spoken word vocal that sounds like the beginning of a cowboy western; ‘Hypermisophoniac’ (a riff on misophonia aka a hatred of sound) fuses warped vocal affectations with discordant bleeps ripped straight from the world’s shittest computer game, while ‘Everything You’ve Ever Learned’’s robotic spoken opening wrong-turns you before Jack comes in with deranged preacher man howls of “Do you want everything?! Do you want to start a fire, then watch it burn?!”.
It’s weird and brilliant, and anything but regressive. Forever associated in popular culture with the accessible hooks of ‘Seven Nation Army’ or ‘Fell In Love With A Girl’, it’s easy to forget that the majority of The White Stripes’ back catalogue was actually a series of oddball vignettes, pushed into the mainstream by a handful of hits so massive they overrode any weirdness beneath. Jack still writes those kind of things too: you only need listen to the fizzing riffs of ‘Over and Over and Over’ to know that he can pop a banger out when he fancies. But it’s more interesting to try and dodge through the esoteric backwaters of his mind, past the hillbilly storytelling of ‘Ezmerelda Steals The Show’ through the dystopian, meta follow up of ‘Get In The Mind Shaft’ (“I sat there for hours trying to understand how to construct a melody”) to a place that’s so much more exciting than any reductive stereotype could let slip.
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