It goes without saying that Jack White is a ladies’ man. His collaborations with women are what have made him the unstoppable musical force he has become over the past decade and a half. There was, of course, Meg White, his silent, pig-tailed partner in crime in their blues-punk duo The White Stripes, with whom he shared more than ten explosive years that ended in a formal announcement of dissolution. Then there was Loretta Lynn, whose unforgettable 2004 comeback Van Lear Rose put producer and co-writer White on the map as one of the few contemporary chart-toppers talented and inventive enough to hang around with the musical legends today’s artists only dare to dream of meeting. Finally, there was The Kills’ singer Alison Mosshart, White’s bandmate in the blues-metal outfit The Dead Weather with whom White shared a fiery chemistry, leaving crowds astonished night after night as they shared smoldering duets.
So, yes, White loves the ladies. But on his long overdue first solo outing Blunderbuss, they don’t exactly love him back. In fact, from the sounds of it, White may have sworn off romance for good. After enduring two very public splits (from pseudo-sister Meg and most recently from his latest musical / romantic partner Karen Elson), White has had enough, and on Blunderbuss, he doesn’t hold back his anger or self-pity. Whether he blames it on his romantic misfortunes or not, White hasn’t been this good in years; Blunderbuss finds the guitar powerhouse back in his element on a record that takes us back to White’s glory days when he was just a red-and-white-clad hooligan crooning the blues. Blunderbuss is nowhere near masterpieces like the White Stripes’ 2003 epic Elephant, a record dealing similarly with love and loss, but it comes pretty darn close.
It’s no secret that White strives to emulate the greats before him, namely the man himself, Bob Dylan. Blunderbuss is, of sorts, White’s version of the mother of all breakup albums Blood on the Tracks; the women about whom White sings have undeniably scorned him and left him in the dark, but he’s willing to admit that he’s just as much to blame for the physical and emotional pain inflicted on him. Blunderbuss, which features a predominantly female backup band, is uncompromising in its viciousness and even turns gruesome. On the jazzy, organ-tinged opener “Missing Pieces,” a woman rids White’s blood-drenched body of all its limbs. On the mellow lead single “Love Interruption,” White yearns for love to “stick a knife inside me and twist it all around.” The sinister, riff-heavy “Freedom at 21” has White begging a woman to “cut off the bottoms of my feet / Make me walk on salt.” But then on “Hypocritical Kiss,” White turns the fault on himself, even if reluctantly: “And I know that you’re mad at me / But if you’re thinking like that, I think you’ll see that you’re mad at you too.” Then on the title track, he’s just downright sad, mourning a “romantic bust a blunder / turned explosive blunderbuss.” It’s this expression of love’s inexplicable juxtaposition of outward brutality and crippling helplessness that makes Blunderbuss such an effective record; White exhibits an unquestionable maturity that can only be attributed to his own sorrow. No longer does he sing about schoolhouse pals on the playground learning their ABCs.
Of course, it’s impossible to write about a Jack White album without addressing his guitar work. Throughout his tenures with The Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather and now as a solo artist, White has become synonymous with effortless electric guitar mastery that has launched him into iconic status (three words: “Seven Nation Army”). But in a surprising move, perhaps in an effort to detach himself from his public persona, White’s signature sound is seldom heard here. Except for the Stripes-esque “Sixteen Saltines” and the delightfully bouncy Little Willie John cover “I’m Shakin’” (on which White declares with mischievous glee “I’m noy-vuss”), much of the guitar on Blunderbuss is acoustic, often void of the screeching, gritty slide guitar solos that have characterized so many of White’s songs in the past. Keys make up for the lack of guitars to an unexpectedly refreshing and pleasant result. The piano-driven “Trash Tongue Talker” is a swinging homage to ‘60s blues rock a la the Rolling Stones and “I Guess I Should Go to Sleep” is a barstool sing-along, the most deliberate straight-up blues effort on the album. This is mostly untouched territory for White, but only he could navigate it with such fearlessness and ease.
You’ve got to hand it to the guy; after spending a solid 15 years on fans’ and critics’ radars, White is one of only a handful of artists who still manages to stay fresh and shake things up with each musical outing, good or bad (we haven’t forgotten your Insane Clown Posse collaboration just yet, Jack). Blunderbuss is everything we could have expected from White, but at the same time, it’s nothing we could ever have anticipated. The album’s brilliance comes out of nowhere and floors us after each listen — an undeniable sign of a true artist.