Jack White used to keep things simple. He formed the White Stripes as a duo with drummer and ex-wife Meg White; his breakout band wasn’t even a band, and their signature song didn’t even use a bass guitar. Even the two proper bands he was in after that — the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather — played relatively straightforward garage rock shot through with the blues (which is to say, they’re not all that different from the White Stripes.) White has a formula, and good things happen when he sticks to it, which is why it’s been fascinating and frustrating to watch him do almost anything but that in his solo career.
His forays into country and folk worked splendidly on “Blunderbuss,” only for him to overdo it on the follow-up “Lazaretto.” The good news is that he’s dialed back these elements on his first album in four years, “Boarding House Reach.” The bad news is that he’s continuing to dilute his formula, to further diminishing returns.
Take “Abulia and Akrasia” — just under a minute and a half, it’s the shortest song on the album, and one of the worst. Over a histrionic piano and fiddle, a vocalist recites an equally histrionic — and pedantic — poem about asking for another cup of tea. Funny thing is, “Abulia and Akrasia” would have been wholly appropriate as a title track. Abulia is clinical condition that refers to diminished motivation; akrasia is defined as a lack of self-control. Together, these two terms handily outline everything that’s wrong with “Boarding House Reach.”
Almost half of the songs on “Boarding House Reach,” including “Abulia and Akrasia,” fall into the former camp. “Ezmerelda Steals the Show” is another scenery-chewing poem over an acoustic guitar arpeggio and organ. “Everything You’ve Ever Learned” sounds like a carnival ride that’s been hijacked by a pissed-off barker (“Do you wanna see it all? / Well, you can just open your eyes / The one who is prepared is never surprised”). Misophonia — quite literally, “hatred of sound” — seems to be the only appropriate response to “Hypermisophoniac,” a migraine-inducing mix of piano chords, electric guitar, and the wheezing electronic noises of a children’s toy. And then there’s “Why Walk a Dog?” and “Get in the Mind Shaft,” two spaced-out songs (the former brooding and bluesy, the latter drifting and funky) that could have been something if White had actually bothered to finish them.
There are a few instances where this contempt for conventional songwriting produces a legitimately engaging track. “Corporation” and “Respect Commander” are both groove-focused, eschewing lyrics almost entirely. They sound like fraternal twins, sharing some basic elements but largely establishing their own sonic identities; “Corporation” includes the kind of rapped outbursts that James Brown was doing in the 1970s, whereas “Respect Commander” is a fast-paced cut that dissolves into pixelated guitar shredding. (It sounds like White plugged his guitar into an Atari rather than an amp.) “What’s Done Is Done,” a lovesick country waltz that’s sung with just the right amount of melodrama, sounds like a demo by comparison.
The remaining songs are held back by the fact that White chose to throw the kitchen sink at them when a less-is-more approach would have served them better. Lead single “Connected by Love” is soulful ballad that builds up to a massive chorus; it’s a good song that would’ve been great if White hadn’t overloaded it with an organ solo, and a guitar solo, and a keyboard solo. Scale back the clashing elements at play in “Hypermisophoniac,” or cycle between them, and you might have had a track that was interesting as opposed to irritating. Then again, it might have ended up like “Ice Station Zebra,” a Frankenstein-esque mutation of about three or four songs, featuring jazzy piano, funky electronic belching, yelped rap verses and congas. Speaking of which, conga breaks pop up all over this album, even where they’re not needed, as on “Over and Over and Over,” an otherwise blistering cut that White wrote back in the days of the White Stripes, but couldn’t get right until now. (Maybe it just needed those damn congas.)
White has never been known for his lyrical acuity, but the lyrics on “Boarding House Reach” are without question the worst that he’s written in his entire career. The aforementioned “Abulia and Akrasia” and “Ezmerelda Steals the Show” are pure logorrhea, as if White is so focused on stuffing the songs with words that he forgets to actually say anything with them. He strains for profundity on “Why Walk a Dog?” and “Everything You’ve Ever Learned,” only to fall on his ass, hard. (Read this verse from the former, which so far as I know was not actually co-written by PETA: “So somebody mated them / And took their babies away from them / Stuck a price tag on its nose / And now you’re buying it clothes.”) When listening to this album, I think of the titular character’s final soliloquy in “Macbeth” (“It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing”) and Ernest Hemingway’s withering put-down of William Faulkner (“Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”).
“Boarding House Reach” is what happens when a great musician does everything except the things that made them a great musician to begin with. It doesn’t take much to make a great Jack White song — just drums, a microphone, a guitar, and a distortion pedal (and sometimes not even that much). After years of post-grunge and nu metal, the stark simplicity of a Jack White song felt electrifying, even dangerous. In his metamorphosis from garage punk to bona fide rock legend, White himself seems to have forgotten that. Or, to paraphrase his own words from long ago: He might have to think of how he got started sitting in his little room.
Contact Jacob Nierenberg at jhn2017 ‘at’ stanford.edu.