Photo: Jack White live in Brooklyn, 03.23.18. Photo courtesy of JackWhiteIII.com.
Over the course of almost 20 years, Jack white has amassed a sizeable and stellar catalog of music. An argument can be made that his only noticeable misstep was the White Stripes’ 2005 album Get Behind Me Satan—it had its moments, sure, but in comparison to everything else the White Stripes did, it was the least favored critically and the most divisive album of his career up until now. Even his work with the Dead Weather and the Raconteurs has been stellar. His solo work has been successful to this point and kept him in the good graces of critics, indie kids, and fans in general.
That brings us to Boarding House Reach, his latest in a series of certain attempts to distance himself from his former garage rock sound. White has been a huge advocate of an organic, retro sound, so much so that he even tries to build his own amps and instruments. What is very noticeable right off the bat is this is a very processed-sounding album. Gone is the analog and lo-fi sound of his previous works, replaced with computerized sound effects, electronic beats, and just noise. That departure feels by design, like White is trying to prove he’s more than just a blues-infused garage rock guy and that he discovered AudioTools or something like it.
It is certainly admirable that he wants to break the mold he’s put himself in and branch out, but here it doesn’t do him any favors. This album is a mish-mash of styles that are all over the musical spectrum without any cohesiveness. It feels very cut-and-paste. It doesn’t make for a very good flow when listening straight through and it doesn’t make this a fun listen. At points throughout the album, songs feel incomplete or on the verge of doing something, but ultimately they just go nowhere. “Corporation” starts off like it might be a good and funky track, but it instead wanders for almost two minutes before White starts singing in a manner so self-indulgent it becomes annoying.
When the album is strong, it is when White is back to doing what we know him for, which is rocking the fuck out. “Over and Over and Over” and “Respect Commander” are great examples of this. On “Respect Commander,” the first part is all processed beats and noises that really serve zero purpose, but about halfway through, it settles into a great bluesy rock song showcasing his guitar skill and howling vocals. It is the first song on the album that actually felt fun to listen to and it is the ninth track on the album. The final 3 tracks of the album are pretty forgettable and beneath what he is capable of. This is just all so disappointing.
This will go down as Jack White’s most divisive album. It is off-putting, clunky, disjointed, and just not fun. His solo output has ground to a crawl in comparison to the rest of his career. This is only the third album in six years, whereas he was releasing on average an album a year between The White Stripes, The Dead Weather, and the Raconteurs from 1999-2010. One bad album won’t ruin things for him, however what he does in response to the harsh criticism this album is receiving will be telling. Stereogum has said this is the sound “a man disappearing permanently up his own asshole.” That is overly harsh, but maybe it’s needed to bring him back down from wherever he thinks he is. We are told to learn from our mistakes or else we are doomed to fail. Let us all hope Jack learns from this. | Michael Koehler