Jack White returns from a trip in a parallel universe.
Having spent much of his adolescence with a four-track tape recorder, Jack White has built a career as a champion of analogue technology; embracing every noise and inaccuracy that a guitar could emit to produce the ferocious sound that granted The White Stripes their distinction. 'Boarding House Reach' marks his first solo effort in four years, replacing the haughtiness of 'Blunderbuss' (2012) and 'Lazaretto' (2014) with what could be described as a walk through a downtrodden blues-themed arcade.
The opener and lead single 'Connected by Love' serves as a clue as to the very different animal that this album is, with the psychedelic space rock of the Door's being a particular influence hence the extensive use of modulated saw waves in various places. The increased emphasis in this sphere is courtesy of the concept which for White, is to follow Michael Jackson in creating the material entirely in his mind and capturing the melodies on his tape recorder before bringing it all to the studio (New Yorker, 2018).
'Why Walk a Dog' retains the despairing character of the blues aesthetic with a trap-inspired backbeat; creating a moody atmosphere with the stabbing electric organ replacing the usual twangy yet rich guitar in the rhythm section and in contrast could be described as one of the more accomplished contributions which makes its limited length a slight shame. 'Abulia and Akrasia', one of three interlude tracks (alongside 'Everything You've Ever Learned' and Ezmerelda Steals the Show'), builds up to 'Hypermisophonia', which aside from the convoluted harmonic fillers and expansive use of panning as potentially inspired by 'Interstellar Overdrive', sums up a common issue on this album: White sounding more like an overexcited keyboardist in a year seven music class rather than the craftsman or pioneer of sound as he is known, which masks the natural harmonic qualities within the songs themselves.
In light of this 'Ice Station Zebra' would probably have been better suited to featuring on the last Beastie Boy's album Hot Sauce Committee Part II. However, it cannot be denied that one would struggle not to shuffle along to the jangling electronic rhythms which work as formidable support to White's undeniably Anthony Kiedis inspired scat singing; combined with acid-jazz freestyle sections straight out of Jay Kay's repertoire. It is in fact not until 'Over and Over and Over' where the contemporary listener can feel any sense of normal business being resumed, despite Everything You're Ever Learned' refuting this immediately as the listener is forced to return to the slightly eerie lo-fi carnival. The influence of quasi-avant-garde expressionism, in sporadic terms at least, does not go amiss; Benjamin Clemente comes to mind particularly in 'Ezmerelda Steals the Show' and 'Get in the Mind Shaft', which feels like a completion to the core arcadial concept that White appears to have created for himself in this effort.
Unfortunately, however, the ambition shown in this album overall far outweighs its conviction. The depth of the surreal textures created through extensive modulation not only fails to mask the reduced quality of the songwriting, which it seriously lacks in contrast to previous releases, it actually becomes an increasing nuisance as the album progresses. Jack White has enjoyed great success with and without The White Stripes, but it does appear that he has hit the point, as with a lot of artists, where he needs to evolve to keep himself interested; creating a crisis as to whether he needs to take himself more seriously or loosen up. It is hard to tell which one he runs with in the end and the bizarre textures that ultimately serve to replace him as a guitarist do not suit him either way. It would be unfair to accuse him of betraying his analogue and minimalist roots just for warming to the idea of modulation, but one would not be unjustified to fear that he may be tentatively heading in Beck's direction in making music that portrays a parodied version of his old self.
Photo Credit : David James Swanson