I’ve been left scratching my head a bit over Jack White’s new album.
At moments on “Boarding House Reach,” things really click. It sounds nothing like his earlier work with the White Stripes, but it’s of such a high quality that it sometimes rivals that early body of work.
At other moments, though, it seems like White has officially begun to take himself far too seriously — something that has always been a bit of a risk for him, if we’re being honest — and it can get to be a drag to listen to White prattle along with bits of self-congratulatory weirdness.
And “weird” is actually a perfect word to describe much of what’s going on with this record. White has always been a bit of a musical-chameleon, but his focus has always largely been on sounds that have long been a go-to for rock performers. White’s sound was always a bit of blues, a dash of grunge, a pinch of glam, maybe even a hint of country.
But that isn’t as much the direction White chooses to go in on “Boarding House Reach.” Instead, much of the record, especially the middle chunk, recalls acts more like Parliament Funkadelic.
It’s exciting to hear White mess around with new sounds like this. But it really does feel like he’s just “messing around.”
Early album cut “Corporation” is a perfect example of that. The track starts out strong, with a brilliantly funky bass groove that’s occasionally punctuated by shouts of “Who’s with me!” and bongo solos.
It’s a fun, mostly instrumental piece. Until, suddenly, it’s not. More than halfway through the five-and-a-half-minute song, White decides to channel his inner Gil Scott-Heron, delivering a mostly spoken word and seemingly off-the-cuff speech railing against corporations.
Seemingly having no idea of where to go from there, he just starts … wailing. White seems to have no idea how to make a jam session sound interesting, and instead decides that shrieking is the best way to vocally improvise. It ruins an otherwise good song.
Later, “Hypermisophoniac” seeks to blend White’s typical range of blues rock with his newfound fascination with funk.
This would be another great song, if White just played it straight. White’s powerful vocals on the verse mesh well with the infectiously catchy chorus — I’ve been singing it in my head for days now.
Issues arise in the ways White tries to make this song more experimental than it really needs to be. Throughout the whole song, an endless electronic drone pumps out of the right speaker, sounding more like a sickly Furby than anything else. White also pitch shifts his vocals, rapidly shifting between sounding chipmunked and freakishly deeply-pitched.
It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. At their core, so many of these songs are really quite good, but then White just dumps unnecessary effects into the mix that derail the thing.
But to be fair to “Boarding House Reach,” not all the tracks are as sloppy as these two. Some are actually quite a bit of fun.
“Ice Station Zebra” is a personal favorite of mine, as White almost seems to take influence from rappers like Q-Tip, delivering the most hip-hop style delivery of his career. And this makes sense, especially given White’s work with Q-Tip on the most recent A Tribe Called Quest album.
The album’s opener, “Connected By Love,” is quite a bit less fun, but its rock ‘n’ roll bombast is absolutely infectious.
And to be equally fair, some of the songs are absolute, unmitigated disasters.
“Why Walk A Dog?” is the album’s most egregious trash heap of a song, totally derailing the energy set up by “Connected By Love.” The song replaces that energy with a short dirge of a song with White lamenting some issue, using such shoddy metaphors — “Why does a dog need to be walked?” he repeatedly asks the listener with no answer given — that his intended meaning gets lost behind the sheer boredom of the song.
It’s been said time and time again that Jack White is one of the most talented artists in rock history. For some moments on “Boarding House Reach,” that talent is as plainly visible as ever. But for so, so many other moments, he seems to just be riding on the shirttails of that reputation.
Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan.
Album: ‘Boarding House Reach’
Artist: Jack White
Labels: Third Man, Columbia, XL
Best Track: “Ice Station Zebra”
Worst Track: “Why Walk A Dog?”