I don’t think this is an album that anyone can approach without expectations. Released ten years after we met Jack White through the White Stripes’ breakout hit, “Fell in Love With A Girl,” Blunderbuss comes with a lot of baggage, most of it caught up in a man who invents his own myths, making him both iconic, untrustworthy, and unforgettable, his presence felt in all of his music. Always theatrical, elusive, and rebellious to the core, Jack’s solo album, built on ostensibly sad or disillusioned lyrics, feels more distant and less sincere than his work in the White Stripes, hidden behind a jaded cool.
Since that infamous ICP collab, I’ve worried that Jack’s deliberately chosen to separate himself from his fans, playing tricks on us that sometimes seem mean and unfair. His intentional irreverence may be part of a somewhat noble effort to maintain his humanity in the face of popularity. That’s not an attack, but the detachment alone is depressing – after all, we want to keep our human parts too. When I heard White say this album happened mostly “by accident” and heard the b-side to “Love Interruption,” a paste-poem from a friend’s e-mail, I worried that Blunderbuss might be comprised of one-off, near-parodies: songs that tip the scale in Jack’s eternal balance between witty wordplay and emotionally articulate music toward the former, abandoning his ability to magically zero out the two, like in “300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues” or “White Moon” (or the whole Stripes’ catalog, for that matter).
Though some similar lyrical moments sprinkle throughout Blunderbuss and seriously heavy, Stripes-like riffs pop up in “Sixteen Saltines” (all that rage and Jack’s screeching falsetto — that’s the stuff) and “Freedom at 21,” it definitely isn’t fair to compare Blunderbuss to White’s former band, though it’s just as inevitable. The White Stripes were often seen as a quasi-solo project for Jack, a band he created to give himself restrictions, as the story goes, making Blunderbuss the next true entry in that timeline. But Meg was much more than a roadblock – she was a real relationship, a mirror for Jack to hold up against himself, an inspiration and an unyielding limitation rolled into one. If the Stripes were about how Jack related to Meg, Blunderbuss is about Jack as he relates to no one.
Constantly rotating his bandmembers and playing god with their relationship dynamics, Jack is able to work objectively and relationship-free in Blunderbuss (perhaps just as he likes it, judging by the don’t-touch-me, love’s-gone-sour theme) but because of it, the tension breaks and the energy fizzles, oddly diluting his playfulness as much as his profundity in thick instrumentation that makes any emotional release seem moderate. Lines like “But the Lord’s joke is a boat in a sea of sadness” seem almost like a parody of himself and us, a double-edged poke at his famous poetic twists.
Some of Blunderbuss’ best emotional moments hinge on bitter anger, mostly directed at modern, malicious ladies or the brutality of love in general. “Freedom at 21,” “Love Interruption,” “Sixteen Saltines,” “and “Hypocritical Kiss” all spit and stand out against ripped-right-from-vinyl, almost safe numbers like “I Guess I Should Go to Sleep,” “Trash Tongue Talker,” and Jack’s version of Little Willie John’s “I’m Shakin.” Yet even their anger can seem put-on, especially in light of White’s amicable break-ups and his reluctance to shred through it – c’mon, man – it’s the best medicine! Less than anger, the songs adopt a sort of detached reflection, the kind you get when you’re suddenly all alone in the street at night after leaving angry – that pause after the storm. But it’s not exactly a pause that Jack’s lost himself in; instead it feels like one he’s mining, calm, cool, and collected way after the fact (if there ever was one).
However your expectations hit after the first cycle, repeat listens reveal a solid record, and the tracks start to unveil their better moments, some rooted in our ability to relate to Jack’s jaded detachment and muted anger itself, though a lot of these songs remain routine and emotionally, if not instrumentally, simplistic — almost resigned acceptance, bad taste stuck on a tongue, that lacks the push and pull of Jack’s serious playfulness. Ripe with unchallenged easy listening and devoid of the raw energy that ripped through the Stripes, Blunderbuss is a quiet album that doesn’t yearn, instead unfolding slowly, from an artist known for his stark music and desperately longing lyrics — another brick in Jack’s wall, more isolating mortar for the myth, and maybe something else.