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Jack White's Banal Blues

For the first time in his career, the multi-instrumentalist sounds bored

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he musical extraordinaire Jack White has never catered to the mainstream. “I think it takes a lot of trickery to keep up with the media and its perception of you,” he told The Guardian in 2012. “I don’t know if I have it in me most of the time to care.”

 

By now, celebrities boasting their indifference to or dislike of how the media characterizes them is blasé. It’s an age-old narrative that most popular entertainers have entered the public consciousness in

part due to the dedication to their art, and that what they create is personal, not tipped in the direction of the tastes of consumers.

 

These sorts of oft-repeated claims have lost much of their ability to resonate mostly because they are so often repeated, and because the people who make them most frequently have to increasingly overtax themselves to retain their outsider personae. 

 

In White’s case though, unconcern, paired with much contempt for the reliance on technology in modern music-making, has bolstered his image. Since the inception of his first musical project, the White Stripes, he has established himself as a rockstar adjacent to the status quo, an eccentric who makes music with his artistic interests at the forefront of his mind. Because he has dependably crafted idiosyncratic but catchy (and sometimes ubiquitous) music, he’s enduringly been at the center of conversations about the state of modern rock for almost two decades. 

 

In all of White’s extensive discography, I have not found anything to actively dislike. For his entire career, White has enthralled me with his innovative rock opuses. Even his most uninspired moments have incited admiration.

 

But on his most recent LP, Boarding House Reach, White has, unexpectedly, strayed from what has made his work so delectable for so many years. For the first time in his career, he sounds miserable and uninspired, contemptuous of his listeners, whom he almost seems to be dismissing. “You were never supposed to get it,” the record inherently says for almost all its 44 minutes.

 

It is difficult to tell if White intended the album to be his version of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s infamous experimental album Trout Mask Replica, or if he simply didn’t have any new musical ideas, figured four years was too long a hiatus, and just threw ideas at a wall and hoped they would stick. 

 

Either way, Boarding House Reach is an outlier in his discography. His other works are palpably enthusiastic and seem to want us to have as good a time as he is. In contrast, this album is a trudge of half-baked ideas and experiments, lacking his trademark cheekiness and bombasity.

 

It is not uncommon for the most curious of musicians to get wrapped up in uncommercial self-indulgence. From David Bowie’s Station to Station to PJ Harvey’s White Chalk, it is expected, and even healthy, for singular artists to gratify outrageous musical ideas from time to time. Yet Boarding House Reach doesn’t sound like the work of an artist pandering to their creative desires; it sounds like the work of an artist who doesn’t have any particular good ideas at the moment and has made something for the sake of making something. This is the first time this has happened in White’s career. 

 

On every track, he sounds drained, robbed of his standard élan. “Connected by Love,” “Corporation,” and “Over and Over and Over” sound like the rough drafts of potentially indelible rock anthems. “Everything You’ve Ever Learned” and “Hypermisophoniac” are cumbersome descendants of the worst cut on The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, “I Just Want to See His Face.” “Abulia and Akrasia,” “Ice Station Zebra,” and “Ezmerelda Steals the Show” are uneasy, contrivedly outré spoken-word experiments. Everything else adds to the aural pyre.

 

Moments of clarity can be found on the LP’s closing two tracks, “What’s Done is Done” and “Humoresque,” lovely ballads that, unlike everything else on the album, seem to be coming from (if you can believe it) the heart. But Boarding House Reach nonetheless makes for an epitomization of what musical iconoclasts should avoid: straining themselves in an attempt to try to retain their provocateur status. By drowning the album in stylistic overkill, White has undercut the exuberance of his other works and pushed us away from his thrilling essence.

 

- APRIL 6, 2018

 

This piece also appeared in The Daily.