Jack White – Blunderbuss (review)

Jack White – Blunderbuss (Third Man / Columbia) review by Russ Barnes

It’s a stretch to call Blunderbuss Jack White’s solo debut after eleven albums from the White Stripes, Raconteurs, and Dead Weather, all of which were very much his projects. Still, each band provided an overall structure for White to develop his songs and ideas around and his first release without that starting structure is something of a moving target, a jumble of genres and shifting tempos that takes repeated listens to really settle in.

There are less guitar pyrotechnics than White usually brings, making way for a lot of piano, Hammond organ, and pedal steel to fill in the spaces as he rummages through the Americana attic. Coming in the wake of his divorce from Karen Elson and the end of the White Stripes, Blunderbuss is also very much a break-up album that runs a lyrical gamut from bitter to bittersweet, but self-consciously so. White has always been as much a performer as a musician, and all the tension and venom comes with a wink and a nod, starting with the over-the-gothtop cover art.

My initial reaction was that Blunderbuss came charging out of the gates, but couldn’t keep up the momentum and fizzled over the second half. As I played it on repeat over the next few days, though, the point I thought it lost steam kept moving steadily back with each listen until the album held together solidly. It’s an excellent release that will age well; it’s just that it peaks early and starts with such a bang that I had to get used to the beginning to appreciate everything that’s going on in the back half.

The midtempo Hammond organ shuffle of opening track “Missing Pieces” and the fist-pumping power chord roar of “16 Saltines” sets up the album’s highlight 1-2 punch. In “Freedom at 21”, White spits, snarls, yelps, and barks over clattering, polyrhythmic drums, working up to a skittering and dissonant double-tracked guitar solo that in a better world would be twice as long. It’s such a tornado of agitation and spite that the restrained, acoustic single that comes next, “Love Interruption”, would feel seething and full of menace even without the grimly dark and violent lyrics. The title track breaks the tension by shifting to baroque, piano-driven pop that keeps adding layers and upping the tempo over the next two songs, including another too-short stuttering guitar solo. A campy rockabilly cover of Little Willie John 1961 classic “I’m Shakin”, while not quite a whiff, mostly seems like a missed opportunity.

While the break-up theme has led some reviewers to make the inevitable comparisons with Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, the three-song run of free-wheeling piano stompers that tips off with “Trash Tongue Talker” sounds more like The Basement Tapes, both the songs themselves and the production. They don’t have the knockout power of the first side, but they also hint that White’s having fun, despite the gloomy theme. The album ends with the psych-folk “On and On and On” cleanly segueing into the shifting prog-rock closer “Take Me With You When You Go,” which slyly refers back to the lyrics from the opening track (“And when they tell you that they just can’t live without you/They ain’t lyin’, they’ll take pieces of you/And they’ll stand above you and walk away/That’s right and take a part of you with them”).

Blunderbuss isn’t quite the masterpiece that some reviewers have labeled it, but it’s a great addition to the discography of an artist who hasn’t dropped a boring album yet and clearly has a lot of space left to explore. Lucky for us he doesn’t seem to be able to sit still.