ZACH LITCHMAN — One of the most influential and most talented musicians and producers of the 21st century is back, and he’s proving that he still has it. Jack White, best known for his role in legendary Detroit garage rock and blues rock duo The White Stripes, and his creation of one of the most immediately recognizable guitar riffs in rock history (which has since become an anthem for sports fans everywhere) has returned with a new solo album. His third LP is a deliberate and noticeable step away from his previous two, and finds him in a zone of forward thinking and highly ambitious experimentation.
For what is dubbed as a rock album, “Boarding House Reach” plunges into many different sounds, most notably hip hop. The album has constant influences from legends like Afrika Bambaataa, Public Enemy, and Rage Against the Machine, and features breakbeats that jump around and are jaunty as all hell. The album is a blend of all sorts of different genres, and the production somehow makes it mesh in a scattered but beautiful way. For the first time in his career, Jack White used Pro Tools, the digital audio workstation he once called “cheating”. This is the first clear difference, as the record sounds futuristic, rather than digging from the past, which he did (quite well too) on “Blunderbuss” and 2014′s “Lazaretto”. While “Blunderbuss” was a very mature record that introduced a dark and somber blues and folk sound to Jack’s repertoire, “Lazaretto” was a very inconsistent album with a number of very forgettable performances. With “Boarding House Reach”, Jack has brought out a wide assortment of influences and has stripped any barriers he once had. The frenetic energy, frenzied arrangements, and distorted guitars, organs, synths, and drum machine beats make this record one weird stew of sounds that even has a slightly psychedelic taste.
The energy of this record is so off the wall, so chaotic, so dizzying, that it becomes an experience to listen to. The first track, “Connected By Love” proves to be a compelling rock ballad with buzzing synths to back it, and a impassioned vocal performance by White, who croons with a certain nervousness. As a single I wasn’t crazy about it, but in the context of this record, the track really comes to life. Even my favorite thing about this track, the wild and distorted organ and guitar solo on the second half of the track, plays so much more powerfully as an opener, and really helps this record take off. From there, we get a laid back and very somber blues tune titled “Why Walk A Dog?”, which has some very dark lyrical themes and hooks the listener with its rough and sinister synth tones, as well as a pronounced bassline and minimalist beat. We quickly shift from a slow sludge to a confident, funky, and Meters-style jumpy beat on the standout “Corporation”. This track has loads of swagger, from the bouncy synth leads, to the funk bass, to the well-mixed percussion, which all come together for an infectious rhythm. Jack shouts and wiles out on vocals, talking about his goal to start a corporation because “That’s how you get adulation”, and his plans to take it all the way to the top, with the recurring question, “Who’s with me?” It strikes me as a theme for his forward-thinking self-made label Third Man Records, as well as the theme for “Boarding House Reach” and the album’s forward-thinking sound. “Corporation” ends and after a short interlude and the incredibly odd “Hypermisophoniac”, we’re taken into the equally confident funk strut of “Ice Station Zebra”, which is too tightly packed a track to really explain. What is clear is that Jack channels his inner Beck on the track, spitting the lyrics in a rap and rollicking over some “Odelay”-era synth stabs, and makes some excellent statements about technology. Through it all, there is this undeniable energy and power that only Jack White can bring to the songs, and this couldn’t be more true than on the following track “Over and Over and Over”. This song is the definition of a badass garage rock banger, and Jack crafts yet another gut punching beat and immediately lovable guitar riff that is reminiscent of Rage Against the Machine. He even rewrites the rock playbook, playing hip hop DJ on his own album with the inclusion of drum machine and bongo grooves, throwing an assortment of different rhythmic surprises into the track to give it an old school hip hop quality to it. This track, as well as “Corporation” and “Ice Station Zebra” exhibit Jack challenging himself, pushing himself to new limits, and doing it with apparent ease.
The wonderful flow of the album continues on the second side, which opens with the unsettling dystopian interlude “Everything You’ve Ever Learned” which I get immense joy listening to as it goes from a futuristic advertisement for “everything you’ve ever learned”, and builds into an angry and head-banging mosher with White shouting “shutup and learn!” It’s just an interlude and it is one of my favorite moments from the record. Following this is the playful and fun “Respect Commander”, which takes clear influence from old school hip hop legends like Afrika Bambaataa and features these 80′s synth hits that pop with the rapid ticking drum beat, then transitioning into a slow, heavy, psychedelic, and slightly sexy instrumental that sets a very dark scene for Jack’s vocals about respecting a woman and being at her command. Jack closes the track with a signature squealing guitar solo, giving a usual trope of his a new vibrant energy in a track that is very new to his musical palette.
The fun doesn’t stop on the track “Get In The Mind Shaft”, which features some bubbly synths and warbled vocals that sound like something from The Flaming Lips’ “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots”. The album closes with two new instrumental directions on the country ballad “What’s Done Is Done”, which includes drum machines that surprisingly sound great with the vocal harmonies, acoustic guitar, and various keys, ranging from grand piano, to organ, to synths. The album then ends peacefully with “Humoresque”, a folk and jazz ballad that has a beautiful structure and piano outro. It brings the album to a full circle, as each track draws into the next, and the album’s highest highs come in the middle, with the beginning and the end taking it down a notch and showing the versatility and success of White’s experiment. “Boarding House Reach” is an album that many longtime fans might hate, and many critics might hate too, but to me, this album is a sign of the future of music. A dense blend of genres, influences and styles. If anyone was to put out a record like this, it would be Jack White, and for as big a Jack White fan as I am, this album significantly surpassed my expectations. He truly threw out the rule book, eliminated his limitations, and made one of the most forward-thinking and ambitious rock albums I’ve heard in a long time. Kudos, Jack. You really pulled it off.