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Jack White
Blunderbuss
Third Man, XL Recordings, Columbia
4.24.12

Oh come on. You didn’t think Jack (of all trades) White was gonna drop his very first solo album by handing you a stunning masterwork preceded by an avalanche of media hype, did you? That’s not the way he works. Coming in under the radar has always been his thing: an indie fist in a retro glove, he’s always preferred to play it low-key, fool you into having low expectations, and then knock them out of the park. From the White Stripes to the Raconteurs to the Dead Weather to his myriad songwriting and production jobs, this decade’s Rick Rubin likes to let his riffs do the talking. It’s why he taught a bartender to play the drums, and also why he started with no bass player.

So it’s only fitting that Blunderbuss, despite its title, is a triple that turns into a home run only after repeat plays; like the rest of his catalog, it seems surprisingly potent until it clicks and you realize it’s extremely potent. Hell, he only accidentally stumbled into this personal statement, fucking around like the true studio rat he is when RZA failed to show up for one of his Blue Series 45 sessions and somehow winding up with a whole album. So, yeah, no Chris Cornell-style letdown here; he’s still Jack, opening with “Missing Pieces,” which is like “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” scored for a gorgeously vintage electric piano, then swerving into a big chunky rocker in “Sixteen Saltines,” which is gonna give everyone from Foxy Shazam to the just-reconstituted Urge Overkill some sleepless nights.

And yet, if you peek through the monster hooks, which are harder to resist than ever, you can glimpse Mr. White working out some massive romantic turmoil; this is the most emo album he’s ever been a part of, which is saying quite a bit. He deftly played this off in what little press runup there was for Blunderbuss, insinuating that this baker’s dozen of tracks are only stitched together as a solo album because they don’t fit his other pet projects. But what else to make of lines like “The people around me won’t let me become what I need to, they want me the same” or “I want love to grab my fingers gently, slam them in a doorway, put my face into the ground”? Even more so than Get Behind Me Satan, this album features a lot of rock-star bluster covering up a shattered heart. It’s his most emotionally potent work.

Three years of producing various artists at his Third Man label have also left some unique fingerprints on this particular Jack White project, which smudges his various influences together in intriguing new ways. The title track, for example, belies its name by mixing gentle piano, jazzy drums, folk guitars, and pedal steel into his own unique vision, and “Trash Tongue Talker,” the most bitter and therefore best track here, funks it up on the verses and rocks out on the chorus, sounding a lot like Jo Jo Gunne crashing into The Darkness, with darker lyrics than either (“I got some words for your ass, you better find somebody else up the street”).

Whereas his forbears mixed blues and folk and then amped it up to make classic rock, Jack mixes classic rock and his own historian’s love of classic Americana, then smartens it up to make it indie. But despite the vintage boogie, this is, in the end, a quieter and more morose record than he’s ever done — the morning after to a White Stripes party, moody, gentle, hateful, oddly comforting. An intriguing emotional mix to go with the musical one, in other words, and it proves that Jack’s real talents are a lot more subtle than his guitar heroics or his color schemes. There’s gonna be a lot of talk about whether the relatively subdued Blunderbussis a response to the end of his marriage to model Karen Elson; when the split occurred last year, the subtly defiant White sent guests an invite to a “divorce party.” This is as close to a soundtrack to that party as we’re ever gonna get.

Graded using the Third Eye Method:

Impact: 85. Some Stripes fans will bitch about the reduced rocking out, but Jack’s angst is louder than ever.
Innovation: 80. Nashville (where his label is located) rubs off on him in intriguing ways, and not in some “authentic” version of country.
Integrity: 91. All work and no play makes Jack a hurt boy.

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