Jack White lives as a method artist, as a character, and as a performance artist. He lives his life in just a few colors at a time, in total control, one concept at a time. For him, technique has always been just as important as the music he’s making.
And for his third solo album Boarding House Reach he decided to switch things up like never before. White started in a rented Nashville one-room apartment where he cut himself off from the outside world, family included, to write the record in his head. Then he recorded the album in two weeks in New York City with twenty-four different New York session musicians he had never worked with before.
He also used different gear for the first time ever—Eddie Van Halen’s Wolfgang Special and St. Vincent’s Signature Ernie Ball. White also decided to—GASP—start using the editing software ProTools (after Chris Rock told him “no one cares how you do it!”), a process White used to call “cheating.”
For someone who doesn’t like to perform with a set list, the amount of decided unpredictability here is unprecedented. And the resulting album is a bit of a surprising disappointment.
White told Rolling Stone that he wanted to make a modern album fusing together a variety of genres to make a “time capsule” record of 2018. But since we are only three months into the year, Boarding House Reach sounds more like a time capsule of 2017—a year full of face palms, violence, stupid ideas made by people in power, (hell, even just stupid comments made by people in power), confusing anger, sadness, and a general sense of not knowing. I’m sure 2018 has that in store for us too. But all of these feelings are hard to name day-to-day, which is why it translates into a clunky LP.
Boarding House Reach is a hodgepodge art project. Jack White has never been a blatantly politically artist. There are a few lyrics here and there over his career suggesting what side he’s on, but mostly his politics revolve around vinyl records, how they’re made, and who isn’t paying attention to them. It’s on Boarding House Reach where I’m scratching my head to understand his irony as I try not to clutch my pearls.
The record opens with lead single “Connected By Love,” beginning with an ominous, spinning synth filter that leads to electronic percussion and drums. It’s a slow slog followed up by “Why Walk A Dog?”—another down-beat track kicked off by electronic thumps. Both songs are clues of what’s to come.
Track three “Corporation” is the longest jam on the record and is musically terrific, but the lyrics—“Who’s with me / Yeah, I’m thinking about starting a corporation”—repeat for over five minutes. It’s sonically interesting but there’s no message here, only (maybe?) sarcasm.
Then there’s “What’s Done Is Done,” in which he reflects, “What's done is done / I just can't fight it no more / So, I'm walking downtown to the store / And I'm buying a gun.” It’s normal to feel sad and confused, to feel lonely, and like you have no control, which is what I hope this song is actually about. Instead it sounds like out-of-touch irony.
Can you present an ironic thesis if the music doesn’t stick? It’s uncomfortable seeing Jack White in this political moment writing satirical songs about guns and corporations—that is, if that’s what his plan was. It’s unclear. What political cachet does a person who’s been pretending his whole career have? And now that he’s trying to say something, should we just believe him because “any man with a microphone can tell you what he loves the most” or is he just playing Jack White the character?
A few tracks are spoken word short stories, songs disguised as poems (“Abulia and Akrasia”) and lessons in alliteration and words as rhythm (“Ezmerelda Steals The Show.”) Neither are radio hits and I’m not sure how they would play on stage (and I wonder if he’d even go there). Both sound like album filler, just like “Everything You’ve Ever Learned.”
The experimentation and its far reach are bizarre and polarizing. “Hypermisophoniac” sounds like a computerized test-signal he decided to turn into a song. Closing track “Humoresque” is a traditional piece composed by Czech folk composer Antonín Dvořák who died in 1904 (lyrics by Howard Johnson). White rearranged the music, but his voice is so practiced it doesn’t sound like him at all. “Ice Station Zebra” is sonically on point for a Jack White record, but the lyrics—all about rejecting labels (“I live in a vacuum / I copy no one”)—just run in circles as he, ugh, raps them.
“Get in the Mind Shaft” feels automated and absurd. Single “Over and Over and Over” is the most classic Jack White scream-driven rock song full of twisted guitar (hey—I’m here for it!), but the choruses fall flat. The ominous vibrato is menacing, pushing me away instead of pulling me in to sing along.
The majority of the lyrics across Boarding House Reach are repetitive chants followed by an echoing chorus: a fuzzy dispatch. White clearly wanted to see how far he could go with an album as an art project—something we’re used to from him. But instead it became complicated and it doesn’t need to be. We have plenty of that in our daily lives.
In the end, I have questions for him and his intentions. Mainly, is it possible to be political without being straightforward in 2018? And was that the plan in the first place?
I want to argue that it’s good for artists to change and evolve, to adapt new ideas and reflect them in their art. But there needs to be something more, a B-plot line if you will, that is more than just look-at-all-the-crazy-stuff-I-can-do! Boarding House Reach sounds confused just to be cool. And that’s not enough.
Notable Tracks: “Connected By Love” | “Ice Station Zebra” | “Over and Over and Over”