Depending on who you ask, Jack White is either seen as a musical visionary or the source of more harm than good in modern rock. The White Stripes might have breathed new life into the idea of stripping rock down to its more bare essentials, but it’s one that has been leached down further and further to a bland, incomprehensible mush, with White left to shoulder the blame at the source. Even in the light of a pair of blues- and country-influenced solo albums, the stigma of riff-rock’s godfather remains present.
Thus, it’s little surprise that Boarding House Reach is the erratic shift that it is, occupying all of the negative space that has previously engulfed the blues and Americana of all of his previous output. Even without hearing a note of music, Boarding House Reach already stands in stark contrast, inspired by advice from Chris Rock and with a backing band better known for work with Jay-Z and Beyoncé. Digging into the album itself though, the already yawning chasm becomes even more vast, as if there was an initial rulebook for the making of this album, it sure wasn’t around for long, as White charges headlong into adjacent genre after adjacent genre in a way that’s compelling and indicative of a more playful, eccentric side that’s rarely seen to this extent anymore. But it’s also a profoundly confused exercise in soundclash that, especially in its lower layers, ends up crossing the line from quirky to intolerable.
That said, if there’s one huge positive that Boarding House Reach has, it’s in its showcase of White’s transferability between styles, even those that are drastically unfamiliar. Of course, some callbacks to his past work are inevitable, like the churning, oversized soul of Connected By Love or the fantastically scuzzy guitar line in Over And Over And Over, but this album gets a lot more interesting when it’s allowed to drift into open waters where anything can happen. It’s rarely a boring listen because of this, and when White stumbles upon a sound that really clicks, things open up into a potentially great area. The horns, acute bass and electro-funk grooves of Corporation have a great nervous energy that really complements White’s jolts of vocals and fuzzed-out howls, and while plenty has already been said about the hip-hop influences on Ice Station Zebra (and not much of it good either), White’s quicker vocal skip over the clicking bass and watery pianos is nowhere near as bad as it’s been made out to be.
On the other hand though, the lack of any real guidance or self-imposition can lead to some truly bad ideas as well, and Boarding House Blues most certainly isn’t shy of those. Primarily, they come with the portrayal of White himself, now morphed into a capital-A artiste with pretensions towards high art that loads a great deal of the material here with overly esoteric symbolism and presentation, either to make a simple point feel so much mightier, or to simply be obtuse for the sake of it. And it really is a stretch to call any of this necessary in terms of how drastically inflated these points are, whether that’s Everything You’ve Ever Learned‘s criticism of a materialistic society that’s less Karl Marx and more Tyler Durden, or the spoken-word poem Ezmerelda Steals The Show as a bloated allegory of the effects of technology on live art. The framing of superiority really does these messages no favours, and an obtrusive, inconsistent instrumental canvas that serves as an approximation of the avant-garde only reinforces that. It’d be nice to assume a track like Abulia And Akrazia is innocent enough, with Australian blues musician C.W. Stoneking reciting verbose poetry over weedling, Middle Eastern-inspired strings and horns, but considering that White is most likely patting himself on the back just outside of shot, it’s most likely not. Capped off with tracks like Why Walk A Dog? and Hypermisophoniac that just sound awful, Boarding House Reach rarely ties enough threads together for an even whole.
And really, it’s tough to work out what the overall aim for this album was besides greater creative liberties. Granted, White is at the point in his musical timeline where he can do whatever he wants and still the praise will come flooding in, but this never felt like it was on the cards at all. It’s interesting to have around, that’s for sure, but the air of artisan craftsmanship that permeates way too much of it really doesn’t merit return listens outside of a few track. There’s a feeling that Boarding House Reach is exactly what White wanted it to be though, and that’s slightly concerning.
For fans of: The Strokes, The Kills, Queen Of The Stone Age
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Boarding House Reach’ by Jack White is out now on Third Man Records / Columbia Records.