From the jump, Jack White always had the air of huckster about him. That he kept his music shiny and new through regularly applications of snake oil wasn’t a problem. Indeed, it was a major part of the appeal. Through his various endeavors, the bruising garage rock, muddy blues appropriations, and whirligig inventiveness was informed by a sprightly sense of humor which served as a welcome, arguably necessary pressure release valve. Hailed as a creator, performer, and impresario, White was probably always doomed to eventually warp into hopeless self-parody.
White’s latest solo album, Boarding House Reach, doesn’t find him fully in the depths of indulgent inanity, but its perilously close. It’s been four years since White’s previous album under his own name, and nearly three full years have passed since he was central to any new full-length release, as astonishingly long layoff for a musician who between the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, the Dead Weather, and his solo work delivered thirteen original albums between 1999 and 2015. A generous assessment of Boarding House Reach posits that White spent the time figuring out how to stretch his sound into strange new territory. I think that’s a misreading of what the emperor has pulled out of his massive wardrobe.
Opening track and lead single “Connected by Love” helpfully establishes the album’s messy contradictions. It’s immediately, unmistakably identifiable as a White song, but with a hesitant muddiness, as if he’s churlishly combatting his own muscle memory. There’s less passion and discovery than can typical be found in White’s work. And it’s been replaced by a sighing indifference, a thick chord reverberating “I guess” over and over. The familiar isn’t inherently bad. If anything, Boarding House Reach could use more of it. The liquid guitar heroics of “Respect Commander,” the buzzy seventies funk of “Corporation,” and the comparatively straightforward “What’s Done is Done” (which finds White borrowing from his country music juke joint elders) are all, to at least some degree, White in his comfort zone. In this instance, anyway, that’s far preferable to White stretching.
White should of course be lauded for not churning out the same old thing, but if the alternative is the tedious experimental goofing of “Hypermisophoniac,” we’re all better off with a lifetime of De Stijl retreads. At times, the results of White’s sonic wandering are little more than a dismissible curiosity, as on “Ice Station Zebra,” which finds White adopting a casually bouncy vocal cadence makes me expect DJ Jazzy Jeff to lean into frame and shake his head while cocking a thumb in White’s direction. It’s far more dire when high pretension drifts in like a choking smog. On “Everything You’ve Ever Learned,” White channels the tripping preacher persona of Jim Morrison at his most comically indulgent. “Ezmerelda Steals the Show” has a similar smack of nonsense profundity (“What melancholy magic/ Has turned a multitude into mush/ Mandibles drop from shock/ An old lady at high altitude/ Whispering, ‘Hush'”).
I’ve gladly bought into White’s fussbudget gimmickry in the past. My household’s copy of Lazaretto, White’s 2014 solo album, has more spring-loaded tricks than a Leatherman Surge, and it remains a prized possession. Boarding House Reach isn’t so jarringly off that it makes me rethink my previous affections. But I do expect I’ll mover forward from here armed with a little more skepticism about a certain sly salesman’s pitches.