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Jack White – Boarding House Reach Review

March 28, 2018 | Posted by David Hayter
Jack White
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Jack White – Boarding House Reach Review  

1. “Connected By Love”
2. “Why Walk A Dog?”
3. “Corporation”
4. “Abulia and Akrasia”
5. “Hypermisophoniac”
6. “Ice Station Zebra”
7. “Over and Over and Over”
8. “Everything You’ve Ever Learned”
9. “Respect Commander”
10. “Ezmerelda Steals The Show”
11. “Get In The Mind Shaft”
12. “What’s Done Is Done”
13. “Humoresque”

There’s no two ways about it: we all take Jack White for granted. His solo career has been a minor revelation, but it’s so rarely remarked upon. Blunderbuss (2012) was a gleefully vicious and highly fictitious post-break-up record (his actual divorce was remarkably amicable), while the follow up, Lazaretto (2014), was a wild and rickety tour of classic American rock and roll. Since his White Stripes days, Jack has been so prolific as solo artist, group member, producer and label kingpin, that he’s almost become a man without a country. He’s off on his own, playing in his retro-rock playground away from both the mainstream and avant garde.

His latest studio album, Boarding House Reach, perhaps unintentionally, seeks to break this cycle. Not only is it a bold departure from practically any and everything in his back catalogue, but it is the kind of hare-brained creation that has to be vigorously defended, savagely torn apart or, at the very least, carefully explained. For many, this will be the worst record White has ever put his name to, but that is part of the fun. Boarding House Reach is an album worth grappling with: no one can slap four stars on this baby and shrug, “well, it’s just Jack being Jack”.

This curious LP pulls the listener in conflicting directions from the off. White hits his audience over the head with his themes and the socio-political undercurrents of each track (our minds disappearing into the cloud as depicted on the cover), but then any sense of urgency vanishes. Murky jams and boogie-woogie-ish workouts begin to take hold and it becomes clear that we are going nowhere fast. “Why Walk A Dog?” which, at 2:29, is less than half the length of the freewheeling “Corperation”, but manages to feel twice as long. It lingers perpetually with its scuzzy grinding guitars counteracting a sensuous baseline. Something is very much amiss. Jack White’s signature riffs and crooked keys are present, but his center of gravity has relocated from his shoulders to hips.

This change in outcomes is no doubt the result of radical departure in the creative process. The supremely severe White has always dealt in precision. Whether that’s expertly recreating the conditions in which classic rock records were made (right down to the authentic instrumentation and microphone placement) or The White Stripes ruthless efficient minimalism. Jack White is man who strips away rather than piles on, but no longer. Startlingly, Boarding House Reach was chopped together on a computer and made with an R&B band used to playing on the finest rump rattling rap records of the last two decades.

Jack takes the plunge and raps on “Ice Station Zebra”. This is not a good idea in general, but White is game and his flow is not too far removed from the crooked nursery rhyme delivery he has employed throughout his career. Nevertheless, he rarely transcends the level of a YouTube parody rapper. Sonically, the track is more intriguing, mixing squelchy electro-funk with Get Behind Me Satan’s dilapidated keys. There are some fascinating flourishes to be found – mostly as a result of how loose, carefree and experimental White appears – but many of these ideas simply feel rehashed or cribbed from classic hip hop and 70s funk records.

If the instrumental experimentation bears strange fruit, then the lyrical themes prove sneakily provocative. White juxtaposes his newfound creative freedom (“I’m never going to go where you want me to go”) with the oppression of commodification and OCD indexing rampant in the Internet age (people are placed in boxes, labelled, codified and contained).

Fittingly, White channels Rage Against The Machine’s buoyant energy on the rip roaring single “Over and Over and Over”; they were, after all, one of last great rock bands to merge black rhythms with white rawk. White’s free yourself outbursts are far less stark and inflamed than Zack de la Rocha’s. Even when Jack is screaming and the gospel vocalists are whooping, White retains an arch and daffy distance. He’s galavanting inside the machine, making a farce of it all, rather than screaming bloody revolution at Google’s gates.

The dissonance isn’t always thrilling. “Respect Commander” starts by blending skittish grooves with alien guitar work and glossy percussive thuds, before descending into a slow-cooked and swampy blues standard. The intro promises a surreal experience, but White ultimately delivers cookie cutter sentiments. Thankfully, he cleans it up with a lovely, squirrelly solo, but the song never hangs together.

The experimentation continues through a series of spoken word efforts. “Everything You’ve Ever Learned” is a humorous detour: a hologram introduces us to the future human brain, a mere processor in the internet of all things, before the organic Jack sweeps in to burn it all down and wave the flag for human experience. It should be the jumping off point for a timely and essential album, but the themes are never fully fleshed out or fulfilled. “Ezmerelda Steals The Show” tries to further these concepts (“fool’s desire distraction…their faces to their gadgets all south”) as natural beauty escapes a zombified human race. It’s effective, but also laughably over earnest.

The cinematic “Get In The Mind Shaft” arrives with a score of strings and another farcically portentous spoken word intro. This, it would seem, is White’s moment to stand and deliver. Here is the heart and soul of the album: can he carry the day?

Well, he certainly tries. Inspired by an “ancient piano” his beat conjures man’s animal origins with its apish effects and primeval grooves. By going back, Jack seeks to take us forward. The track briefly pauses at one dramatic point as White audibly appears to see the light. It’s all very dramatic as “Get Into The Mind Shaft” builds and builds and builds some more, before going… absolutely nowhere. Perhaps that’s the joke. But Jack White is this generation’s most iconic guitarist; if there was ever a time for face melting, apocalypse averting, preposterously indulgent, 70s inspired solo, this was it.

Instead, White waves the white flag. “What’s Done is Done” is a head down ditty of surrender. Its mawkish country arrangement is quietly wonderful, but it feels like too little, too late. Still, as gut punches go, it’s a great one. White, who was screaming revolution at the album’s midpoint, is now slumping back and forth to the store alienated from modern mankind. “Why do I feel like nothing is real”, he sings on this barroom ballad for a world where barroom’s no longer exist, before resigning himself to his fate: “so I’m walking downtown to the store and buying a gun”.

It’s incredible maudlin and White is opening himself up to scathing parody. What a shock: a musician obsessed with recreating the past is disgusted at technological modernity. Old man yells at cloud. But of course there’s more to it than that, White has embraced new technology, new band mates and brand new rhythms. He’s shaking, he’s smiling, he’s screaming and he’s taking major risks from spoken word poems to wacky 80s rapping. Boarding House Reach is an album rich in humor and it has in a sting in its tail. White saves his two most traditional (and best) songs for last (as the Radiohead-ish “Humoresque” follows “What’s Done Is Done”). Perhaps this has all been a situationalist joke at our expense, designed to convince the world that the old ways are still the best.

Unfortunately, for all the intrigue and excitement that this narrative rich album delivers, it is content light in the extreme. Much of Boarding House Reach is reminiscent of the short skit-like-ditties that would serve as a brief change of pace on The White Stripes’ classic LPs. Except here these jaunts sprawl over three or four unnecessary minutes. The standout moments are not only few and far between, but hardly compare to White’s greatest works. This is not to label Boarding House Reach a failure. It’s one of the most intriguing and intellectually engaging records we will hear all year.

This is a Luddite’s attempt to not only embrace the future, but to narrate it. White ends up with a bad taste in his mouth and is forced to spit modernity out. He wants to break the tyranny of screens, social media and (even) Wikipedia in favor of first hand experience. However, White is no hypocrite. Before he can decry our electronic world, he has to first immerse himself within it. Boarding House Reach is journey into (and a sorrowful escape from) the 21st Century and the world yet to come.

The final score: review Average
The 411
Boarding House Reach is more interesting than good as Renaissance man Jack White boldly embraces modernity. The result is a fun and funny album, worthy of intellectual engagement, but marred by inconsequential jams and skeletal songs. Everyone should listen to and engage with it.

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Jack White, David Hayter