Let’s just skip right to the part on Jack White’s new album, Boarding House Reach, where Jack White, for lack of any other word to describe it, raps. The rapping transpires on a song called “Ice Station Zebra.” The vibe is terse, sproingy, spy-movie jazz, driven by a two-chord piano riff played by what sounds like 20 pairs of hands. And here comes Jack White, who is 42 but by design feels decades older, to drop some bars about the creative process, and explain why “terse, sproingy, spy-movie jazz” is a stupid way to describe anything:
Hear me out, it ain’t easy, but I’ll try to explain
Everything in the world gets labeled and named
Maybe you need an example.
Here’s an example!
If Joe Blow says, “Yo, you paint like Caravaggio”
You respond, “No, that’s an insult, Joe”
“I live in a vacuum, I ain’t copyin’ no one”
[Funky piano riff]
Listen up, son
[Gigantic drum roll]
Everyone creatin’ is a member of the family
Passin’ down genes and ideas and harmony
The players and the cynics might be thinkin’ it’s odd
But if you rewind the tape we’re all copyin’ God
Which explains a lot, actually, about both Jack White and God. This pretentious, ponderous collection of self-worshiping prog-rock songs is enough to prompt the question, On what day did the Lord create Jack White’s solo career, and couldn’t He have rested on that day, too? That’s a Spinal Tap reference but not, somehow, totally an insult. Boarding House Reach is White’s third album under his own name since the 2011 dissolution of the White Stripes, and given the meandering electro-funk tomfoolery rampant throughout, it’s definitely the single weirdest record he’s ever made, under any name. At first contact, your bow tie will definitely spin at a lot of it. You might hate all of it. But however long your exposure, you will never, ever be bored. Credit the man for getting your attention here in what he constantly laments as the attention-deficit age, even if that attention quickly turns to scorn.
The question is less What happened to Jack White? than When did it happen? Is it possible that whatever happened, it happened decades ago, long before the White Stripes became rock ’n’ roll saviors? Has he always been like this: unhinged, brash to the point of megalomaniacal, and sprawling to the point of incoherent? Is it just that in the White Stripes, his ex-wife / “sister” / drummer Meg White kept those eccentricities in check? In the past few years, has he disastrously lost focus, or just lost the filter that deceived us all into thinking he ever had any focus to begin with?
Alongside Meg, Jack emerged from Detroit in the late ’90s as a prototypical Last of His Kind: the last rock star, the last guitar hero, the last analog warrior. (Courtesy of his Nashville-based curio empire, Third Man Records, every stray thought in White’s head is now instantly, telekinetically committed to 180-gram vinyl.) As a songwriter, a hot-shit guitarist, and a media-enrapturing conceptualist, Jack was a peerless triple threat in the Rock Is Back 2000s, our weirdest rock god, and maybe that era’s biggest, and probably its best. The inevitable White Stripes reunion show at Coachella will definitely be the cultural highlight of the next 10 years, provided Meg’s down with it and the rest of us live that long. The final scene in the 2010 White Stripes documentary Under Great White Northern Lights, in which Jack plays “White Moon” on a grand piano while Meg sits next to him and cries, is beautiful and mystifying, proof of a band dynamic nobody else could hope to duplicate, and neither of them could duplicate alone.
Jack’s career since has been an exercise in mortality and, more recently, futility. As odd and polarizing as Meg’s minimalist approach to drumming could be, she undoubtedly brought out the best in him. Pair Jack with more conventional garage-rock badasses in bands like the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather, and he makes conventionally badass garage rock, workmanlike but frustratingly unspectacular. And leave him totally on his own — as on his previous solo albums, 2012’s Blunderbuss and 2014’s Lazaretto — and he sprawls out maniacally, indulging dozens of sonic ideas but fully committing to none of them. He can still be electrifying. But he is inevitably exhausting.
Both those previous Jack White records have their moments: I am never upset about getting the lawdy lawd breakdown in “Three Women” stuck in my head. That tour he did with two separate backing bands, one all-male and one all-female, was amusing in theory, if apparently calamitous in practice. His lack of media polish — after a 2014 Rolling Stone cover story, he felt compelled to write a detailed apology to Meg White, the Black Keys, Adele, Amy Winehouse, and Duffy — is certainly a breath of fresh, if alarmingly toxic, air. Third Man Records has brought a great deal of odd and a smaller but still admirable amount of good into the world: Margo Price alone makes up for a lot.
But what you don’t get from Jack White anymore are killer songs. Boarding House Reach kicks off with “Connected by Love,” a slow-burning, chest-pounding ballad that piles warm organ riffs atop chilly synth bass with Jack in full blues-shouter mode, overemoting amid a searing choir of female backup singers barking We’re connected! That one gets close. But the record quickly atomizes from there. The concept this time is that White jammed extensively with a huge, unwieldy backing band largely composed of sidemen for Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Beyoncé, and the like, paring down the results in part via the use of Pro Tools, which for such a famously digital-averse guy constitutes a major concession.
I mean paring down only by comparison. This record gets super goofy super fast. “Why Walk a Dog?” is a surly, bizarre diatribe against pet ownership — “These cats seem to blow / Everyone’s mind, but mine / What is so funny / About beasts above understanding?” — that threatens to transform into a metaphor for something else, but never does. Songs like “Corporation,” “Hypermisophoniac,” and “Respect Commander” (that one’s about a woman) establish impressively scuzzy riffs but run them into the ground; probably we should’ve been worried when advance press compared this record to Bitches Brew. There are multiple irritating skits and interludes, from a rambling monologue from Australian blues singer C.W. Stoneking (he sounds like Woody Harrelson) to White’s own recitation of a psychedelic poem that furthers his ongoing blood feud against cellphones: “Fools desire distraction / And not take to heart / Their faces to their gadgets all south / Ignoring the beauty of fog on a hill / And a kitten with a mouse in its mouth.”
The best you can hope for here is that occasionally, the fog on the hill is lovely. “What’s Done Is Done,” an eerie and relatively unadorned duet with the country singer Esther Rose, is addition by subtraction; the record ends with “Humoresque,” a delicate piano tune that speaks to the joys of simple pleasures, but wait, oh, geez, it turns out White bought the song’s sheet music at auction because he thought it was written in prison by Al Capone. You can never accuse this guy of not trying. You can very credibly accuse him of trying too hard.
Smack in the middle of Boarding House Reach is “Over and Over and Over,” an old, unrecorded song originally written for the White Stripes. The vicious, crabby riff is certainly a throwback, but every additional layer piled on top of it — the bongos, the monster-movie backup singers, the hyperactive drumming — clutters the room and dulls the impact. You’ll strain to hear this song in its earliest, presumably far more primitive form, with Meg bashing blithely away on drums, a far more simplistic and infinitely more effective approach. Restraint was the White Stripes’ secret weapon; the lack of it is now Jack White’s greatest nemesis. He is languishing in a vacuum, copying no one, and blessed with far too many toys.