Now in his early 40s, and with a recording career stretching back to the late 90s, Jack White has become a brand. Here, he takes some of the brute force of a Led Zeppelin, but then slows it down and chops it up—approaching long-standing influences as if he was a hip-hop producer, shifting his once-organic sound into something more abstract and digital.
When one wants to be confused—or see the line where an artist’s ambition begins to blur into utter misguidedness. Like Chris Cornell’s electronic R&B detour on the 2009 albumScream, White packs this album with plenty of left-field ideas but little in the way of actual songs.
A dystopian nightmare in which all modern hip-hop and electronic production gets handled by guitarists.
Here’s the kind way to put it: Jack White on Boarding House Reachis weirder than ever. Not only that, he seems eager to shed any image he may have left as a blues-rock revivalist. A noble cause, sure. These wildly diverse 13 songs see White plow through genres with the fervor of the Clash on Sandinista!
And yet the album feels cold, like a puzzle White doesn’t want the listener to solve. At times he sing-speaks. At time he raps (yes, he raps). At times he appears to get topical in his messaging (see the sarcasm of “Corporation”). Other times he goes on about the first time he played piano, or delivers a hip-hop sermon about the musical continuum and the exchange of ideas (the excruciating “Ice Station Zebra”). And that says nothing of the music. The latter apes both the Beastie Boys and Funkadelic—only now, with more jazz breakdowns—as White contrasts hard guitar screeches with retro funk and 80s-ready beats.
Nothing ever is as it seems. In a matter of seconds, White mixes and matches Caribbean rhythms, Miles Davis coolness, Herbie Hancock sexiness, and blocky beats. Then he uses the guitar less as an instrument and more as a torture device. The underlying tone feels so darkly oppressive and claustrophobic that the resultant mood doesn’t suggest curiosity or inspiration. Listening to it all is like being bullied. Take the aggressive gospel-metal sludge of “Connected by Love,” which views romance as emotional handcuffs. Or the metaphorical down-and-dirty atmospheric blues of “Why Walk a Dog?” While the song may be intended to preach humility, its anger appears oddly directed at pet owners.
Elsewhere, “Abulia and Akrasia” come off as an annoying riff on Tom Waits-inspired spoken-word nonsense. The glitchy, stuttering synths of “Hypermisophoniac” feel like someone just discovered computers. “Everything You’ve Ever Learned” unfolds as a cruel lecture with out-of-place Afro-Cuban rhythms. Just try not to be exhausted by the time the tune erupts in guitar-keyboard fuzz, White shouting, “Shut up and learn!” Sound advice for the era of fake news, perhaps, but no need to take notes here.
Akin to many of the label’s releases, Third Man Records’ vinyl pressing kicks off too much surface noise and crackle. And aside from the archival record sleeve, everything about the packaging—from the cheap single-fold insert to the single outer sleeve, so thin you can not only feel but see the cardboard folds—fails to convey the beauty of a quality LP. As for the sound? As hodgepodge and inconsistent as the songs.
Above all, the biggest misstep here isn’t White’s desire to experiment but the hostile nature in which it’s compiled. White isn’t giving us different. Rather, he’s shoving different down our throats.
Last chance to change your mind...