Jack White: Boarding House Reach review – Sonic experiments with riffs big enough to burst dams

Fri, Mar 23, 2018, 05:00

   
 

Album:
Boarding House Reach

Artist:
Jack White

Label:
Third Man/XL Recordings

Genre:
Alternative

Jack White has always been a paradigm of rock’n’roll values. I don’t mean the whiskey-soaked, drugged-out, smashed-up-hotel type. That’s all entirely noble, but it’s not exactly White’s bag. No, I’m talking about the 42-year-old as an electric-guitar virtuoso.

For those who believe songs are only real if wrangled from fretted instruments (pity these people) White has been a deity to bow down to. He’s a custodian of the old school, a star capable of encapsulating throwback tunes once spun on dusty old vinyl and through hissing C90 cassette tapes for listeners who, in their best Joan Jett voice, love rock’n’roll!

Guitar music is about as bad as it has ever been. There’s no need to send me recommendations. I know there are some phenomenal artists out there. But many traditional western indie hubs have spent the past few years in a state of depression.

Jack White: Connected by Love

During these lean times White has continued to blaze a blood-raw style that draws strength from classic sounds. Going right back to the unostentatious blues of The White Stripes, his arrangements have been unprocessed, his songwriting impactful and his guitar playing inventive. But there’s one thing White has rarely addressed: what lies beyond the outer walls of his style?

On Boarding House Reach White rigorously tests the limits of his talent. Musicians who explore new realms risk entering ecosystems they can’t survive in. Rather than shift the centre of his universe White extends its borders to incorporate daring new styles. For the most part the experimentation writes advanced chapters in his stylistic playbook.

Sonically thrilling and immaculately produced, Boarding House Reach hits you with thunderbolts from the opening bell. The warbling analogue electronics that usher in the opening track, Connected by Love, are like a soundtrack to White’s stepping through a sci-fi teleporter into a strange new world. Over the supernatural synths his dramatic vocals summon the spirit of Freddie Mercury, while the sizzling piano, organ and choral chants give the song a red-hot bedrock. “I know we’re connected by love,” White croons. A nonsense lyric, but anything can be imbued with meaning when delivered with this much vigour.

The cool-hand guitar lines and flowing organ on Corporation form a scintillating engine reminiscent of west African afro-rock, while the snappin’ ’n’ trappin’ drum loop could launch 1,000 rap beats. White uses the space to launch into a critique of capitalism: “I’m thinking about starting a corporation . . . Nowadays that’s how you get adulation.” His freewheeling performance sounds like the flows of a preacher spreading the word of the socialist Holy Ghost.

Jack White: despite his experimental tinkering, White’s riffs on Boarding House Reach are still big enough to burst dams. Photograph: David James Swanson
Jack White: despite his experimental tinkering, White’s riffs on 'Boarding House Reach' are still big enough to burst dams. Photograph: David James Swanson

Traditional song structure is low on Boarding House Reach’s list of priorities. Instead the album is a cluster bomb of shards. Hypermisophoniac fuses freestyle blues piano, industrial machinery and digitally manipulated vocals yet somehow makes sense. Get in the Mind Shaft is a squelchy electro-funk jam with shades of Krautrock for anyone who’s ever been in computer love.

Despite the experimental tinkering, White’s riffs are still big enough to shake buildings and burst dams. The straight guitar songs sound tired and flat, though. The painfully dull Over and Over and Over rides a riff that sounds as well worn as a school uniform in May.

It’s when White deploys his axe in unusual ways that things get more interesting. Respect Commander, for example, suffers from the same electronic jitters as Afrika Bambaataa’s pioneering rap song Planet Rock before evolving into a blistering blues freak-out.

On paper these are crazy experiments, particularly from a man whose great skill has been crafting classic rock songs. Yet on Boarding House Reach Jack White wins again by adding previously unseen ripples to his artistry.

There was a time when experimenting for White meant introducing a bass guitar to the mix. Now that he has shifted into so many new lanes, who could predict his next savage trip?

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