“It’s no secret ambition bites the nails of success…” – “The Fly,” U2
Creativity has always been a fascinating thing to me. I’ve always been impressed by artists, not just rock and roll musicians, but all great artist’s ability to tap into some unlimited font of ideas. Whether it’s Hemingway digging deep for The Old Man And The Sea later in his career or Picasso mining his sorrow in World War II to come up with La Guernica it all fills me with awe (I do love that when asked by a fascist if he painted La Guernica Picasso was witty enough to say, “No, you did.”). Ideas seem to come to the masters from all sources. Johnny Carson famously said to another comedian, “You use everything you have for a laugh.” I’ve never been blessed with that wild creative gene. Yes, your intrepid B&V blogger did spend about a year once writing a novel. It was a great experience and very cathartic and I’m proud I finished it, but it wasn’t a very compelling read. However, I really enjoyed the process of creating. If I had more time and any decent ideas, I’d try again… but to repeat, I don’t have that great of an imagination.
When I look to rock and roll, there are so many examples of bands or artists who took creative risks or at the very least, creative left turns. For the most part, I can sit and listen to a majority of the bands I like and there seems to be a linear growth in the way they created their music. Musician’s playing and writing skills evolve in a fairly similar, straightforward way. But then you look at bands like the Beatles. You could argue their development was linear, but when you realize the same band who did “I Want To Hold Your Hand” also did “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite” merely four years later, it’s hard to call that growth “linear.” The Beatles developed and explored different sounds in an exponential way or perhaps it’s better described as an exploding sun, in every direction all at once. David Bowie is another example of an artist who consistently defied creative expectations and changed his sound… his theme song was “Changes,” for God’s sake. The guy went from Glam Rock (dressed as a sexually-ambiguous alien) to doing Philly Soul (with Luther Vandross on backing vocals, no less) to German ambient rock with Eno. Oddly for Bowie and the Beatles all these creative twists and turns just… worked. Wherever these ideas were coming from, they were all great. Ok maybe Bowie should have opted out of the duet with Jagger on “Dancing In The Streets.” The video still haunts me.
I have always subscribed to the “‘Great Man” theory of rock and roll, that there are certain great men or great artists who influence and shape the very genre of rock and roll. I have always considered Jack White to be one of those “greats.” White is a real dichotomy to me. On one hand, he’s an anachronism, which Webster defines as a person or thing that is chronologically out of place. His music has always been extremely rooted in the past. He is, in my mind, first and foremost a Bluesman. He ranks up there with Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Son House and Robert Johnson. His guitar playing and his whole ethos is bluesy. He also managed to embrace rock (like Hendrix) and a punk energy that singularly defined him as a “great” artist. His hobby is re-upholstering for God’s sake… who does that nowadays? I sometimes wonder if some day we’ll discover a photograph, similar to the shot of Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining, shot 50 years prior, of Jack White standing next Charley Patton… his pale white face framed with black hair, looking exactly the same as he does now, only in 1925.
On the other hand, opposite the anachronistic nature, is a quality in Jack White that can only be described as so futuristic that it causes me to occasionally wonder if he’s a space alien. The monochromatic, red/white theme he employed for the White Stripes was as futuristic as it was old-time. Is the upholstery hobby retro or possibly a sign he’s from another planet? For the most part in his career, White has followed his muse more toward looking back to the blues or country for inspiration. Not so on Boarding House Reach. White’s new album is nothing short of a Martian Dance Party. He throws everything AND the kitchen sink into each song… And this leads me back to creativity. I applaud any artist’s willingness and ability to challenge himself and to take a creative left turn. The courage and the imagination should be applauded. Jack took four years off between records, to spend more time with his young children and clearly he wanted to do something grand on his return to recording. I am sad to say, it just didn’t work.
For the most part, White takes the typical structure of songs, verse-chorus-verse-chorus, and throws that out the window. There are a few spoken word pieces that don’t jell at all, like “Abulia and Akrasia.” There’s a song that sounds like an angry White is screaming into a megaphone…”Everything You’ve Ever Learned” that is the most puzzling thing the man has ever done. Towards the beginning of the album there’s a trio of songs, “Corporation,” “Hypermisophonic,” and “Ice Station Zebra” where so many sounds are colliding and firing in different directions, the songs are rendered unlistenable. “Corporation” sounds like a bad demo of Prince and the New Power Generation. In “Hypermisophonic,” the chorus “when you’re robbing a bank,” keeps getting repeated until you’re ready for the cops to show up and arrest the robbers. “Ice Station Zebra” has a jazzy feel but it’s a jazz that might get played by that bar band in the cantina scene from the original Star Wars.
“Get In The Mind Shaft” has a robotic-vocal effect that makes me wonder if Jack will release a video of himself actually dancing “the Robot.” “Esmerelda Steals the Show” is an acoustic number that turns out to be an “anti-cell phone at the show” number… It’s message was clear, it’s music was not. “Respect Commander” and “Over and Over and Over” at least have a decent guitar riff… well, at least to start off with. Both songs take weird, alien keyboard twists.
The opening track, “Connected By Love,” reviewed earlier on B&V (Review: Jack White’s Two New Songs) is probably, while different, the most accessible song here. He also does a nice country weeper, “What’s Done Is Done” towards the end. The other song I enjoyed was “Humoresque,” an odd, acoustic lullaby that closes things down. Other than those three tracks, I’m not sure I can find anything to connect with on this album. Gone are the great guitar solos or even the great guitar riffs. I like Jack on keyboards, but here he mostly employs synths and weird, computer sounding keys. There’s very little on this record that sounds organic, something I’ve always found on White’s previous work.
White decided to record this album with an all new backing band. In many cases he went to the studio musicians who’d been used by various hip-hop artists. I applaud the idea, but for whatever reason it just didn’t come together. Every time I put this album on the Rock Chick runs from the room. It’s hard to tell a genius like Jack White, hey man, you made a bad album. I rarely write anything negative, there are enough haters out there. If I don’t like an album, I just stay mum about it… I try to shed light on good things people should go check out… White is such an important artist, in my mind anyway, I felt I had to weigh in here. I followed Jack from The White Stripes to The Raconteurs to The Dead Weather to his solo work. I imagine I will continue to follow his creative forays, whatever direction they take him for as long as he keeps going. I just can’t, in good conscience, recommend this album. This is clearly a case where an artist’s creative grasp exceeded his reach… maybe I’m not smart enough, but I just don’t get it…
I think I speak for everyone when I say, sincerely… Meg White… wherever you are… Please come back!