“Who the hell’s impressed by you?” demands Jack White while juggling the emotional conflict of ‘Hypocritical Kiss’. “I want names of the people that we know are falling for this.” For a debut solo record there’s a lot of history being exorcised here: whether it’s divorce, death or self-doubt, Jack White is prepared to wash his laundry in public. But rather than bemoan the world with a weary guitar, he has crafted an astonishing record which marks a musical progression for an already great artist.
Blunderbuss is White’s redemption for a period in the “White” brand wilderness, as though he’s been in training with rock’s sensei; finally able to wax on a vibrant musical depth while garage rock’s gritty dogma is waxed off, its primer role fulfilled. It’s testament to his creativity how he’s sought resolutions to his shortcomings. A pop angle was needed, so Brendan Benson taught him to swing with Raconteurs while Dead Weather equipped him with the humble compromise of a band environment.
You see, Jack White’s a hustler who gets people to reveal their talent, then nicks their trick shot before unashamedly sucker-punching with his ability to do it better. “The people around me won’t let me become what I need to, they want me the same/I look at myself and I want to just cover my eyes and give myself a new name” White mourns on Blunderbuss’ Faberge highlight ‘On And On’, signifying he cannot help absorbing his surrounding influences, as though building a seven note army, before executing them with incendiary virility and reaming refreshingly reinvented.
This layered melting pot at Blunderbuss’ heart is raw during ‘Sixteen Saltines’, with its Clash intro whooping into arena-crunching drums. On face value it’s nothing more than FM friendly rock, until the disjointed structuring of the Dead Weather’s disjointed Hammond and Benson takes over, revealing it as Whites’ essay on what he’s learnt, a snappy abstract before the real knowledge is explained on ‘Freedom At 21’. With its death cello, stutter-hop stomps, skulking riff, and yes, slight rap, ‘Freedom At 21’ takes White into the realm of unique aural mastery.
White has discovered a new reliance on keyboards rather than the easy guttural grind of guitars. Album opener ‘Missing Pieces’ uses Wonder-esque organs to gently shuffle between lullaby rhythms while a guitar solo is only sparingly deployed as an extension of the keyboard groove. Likewise ‘Take Me Where You Go’ gently parades a harpsi-lite saunter before Steinman chords break open Carla Azar’s phenomenal drumming. The shifting of guitars into the background is most beautiful during the title track, with pedal steel and piano framing calls of passion.
Musically Blunderbuss is vast, pushing the bookends of what constitutes a rock record and giving it a concept album feel, which unfortunately exacerbates the record’s weakness. There’s invigorating innovation, juxtaposed with a tiresome homage to classic ’70s R&B rock which places a third of the record between Elton John and the Faces, making it completely forgettable.
In particular ‘Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy’ is Dennis Waterman doing his honky-tonk cockney lad thing with Wings, while ‘Trash Tongue Talker’ is nothing other than a soul blues racket which even The Commitments would find too cheesy. Jack White’s Third Man Records are the flag wavers for exciting vinyl releases, producing a 7” inside a 12”. Yet Blunderbuss is an advert for buying individual mp3s, as four of the album’s tracks are completely unnecessary.
Nevertheless, Blunderbuss is Jack White’s greatest recording, overshadowing much of the White Stripes career; it’s musically accomplished, traditional and emotive. That said, it’s far from prefect as its reliance of mellow club blues belittles the forward-looking nature of the album’s masterstrokes. But this is who Jack White is: he’s not perfect, and he’s constantly learning. Even with the emotional and musical conflict at the core of this astounding album driving him to new peaks, his distinction as a true 21st century legend remains just out of reach.