Jack White: Acoustic Recordings 1998-2016 review – stripped back but still elusive

Bared of his pearly king artifice, White’s new pose as a normal human being finds him every bit the painstaking craftsman in this classy compilation

The cover of Jack White’s first ever career-spanning compilation seems significant. Long-term watchers of the former White Stripe’s career might sigh: so what else is new? Virtually every album White has released thus far has come wrapped in a sleeve rich in meaningful imagery: the crowds of shadowy photographers supposedly representing the White Stripes’ conflicted attitude to fame on 2001’s White Blood Cells; the shot of him brooding, with a vulture on his shoulder, that heralded his post-divorce solo debut Blunderbuss. But what’s striking about the cover of Acoustic Recordings 1998-2016 is that there’s nothing striking about it at all. White is dressed, for once, like a relatively normal human being: not a pearly king outfit nor gaucho hat in sight. There are no props laden with oblique import, no animals. Just White, looking a little pensive in front of a microphone, guitar in hand.

Jack White Acoustic Recordings.
No gaucho hat, Jack? The cover of Jack White Acoustic Recordings. Photograph: Record Company Handout

The implication is that what the listener will get over the course of the compilation is the real, unadorned deal, stripped of the kind of artifice that led the singer to spend years only dressing in certain colours, or pretending his ex-wife was his sister. Maybe the serpentine path it picks through his past – big hits largely usurped by B-sides; nothing from scuzzy blues side-project the Dead Weather – is designed to reveal the man behind the self-mythologising and contrivance.

Or maybe Acoustic Recordings is every bit as artfully contrived as every other Jack White project. There are certainly a lot of songs that aren’t acoustic, as such – at least in the one-man-and-a-microphone style suggested by the cover – but rather full band recordings with the electric guitars mixed out. You can still faintly hear them at the start of Carolina Drama. One of the album’s big selling points is an unreleased White Stripes track, which turns out to be nothing of the sort: City Lights is a song White started writing while the White Stripes were still a going concern, and recently finished and recorded with his current bass player Dominic Davis.

The sleeve notes by august critic Greil Marcus place the 26 tracks in a grand tradition of austere, sincere, unembellished music that also includes Son House’s a capella Grinnin’ in Your Face. “One man against the world. And one song,” White notes approvingly of the latter, a description that may well fit the Delta bluesman’s stark litany of hard-won advice, but feels a stretch when applied to, say, Acoustic Recordings’ Love Is the Truth, which is the music from a Coca-Cola commercial divested of its exuberant brass arrangement. One man against the world. And one song. And one advertising agency with 400 staff and offices in London, New York and Buenos Aires.

Still, there’s no getting around the fact that Love Is the Truth is a fabulous song: a beautifully concise burst of sunshine pop that the Turtles would have happily put their name to. In fact, Acoustic Recordings suggests that White is at his least interesting when he self-consciously attempts to lock into what Marcus calls “the whole cosmos of old American folk music”. A bluegrass version of the Raconteurs’ Top Yourself features White in frailty-thy-name-is-woman mode, which is never his best look, and it is substantially less potent than the original, the banjo and fiddle feeling grafted on. The folky Never Far Away, from the soundtrack of Cold Mountain, is slender, and sounds a bit like Three Blind Mice.

The compilation does make a convincing case for Jack White the versatile pop songwriter, however. Blessed with a sweet melodic touch, he turns his hand to everything from children’s songs (We’re Going to Be Friends) to powerpop (recorded differently, You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket could have graced a Big Star album); from epic balladry (Forever for Her Is Over for Me) to comedy. Into the last category, you might place the Beck-produced 2006 B-side Honey We Can’t Afford to Look This Cheap. But once you get past the fact that the main riff keeps suggesting it’s about to turn into Mungo Jerry’s In the Summertime, you’re left with a fantastic pen-portrait of two scam artists down on their luck, that’s both genuinely funny and oddly touching: White’s voice bug-eyed with indignation, the music seemingly as close to collapse as the protagonists’ relationship.

Listening to the compilation’s chronologically ordered tracks, you notice that the lightness and humour that powers Honey We Can’t Afford to Look This Cheap seemed to desert White around the time Meg White vacated her drum stool. Since the White Stripes’ disbandment, Jack White’s music has got ever more tightly coiled and self-reflexive: he seems to have saved his sense of humour for Third Man Records, a company ever ready to release albums that rotate at 3rpm, or contain tracks hidden beneath the label.

There are certainly benefits to this new seriousness: it’s hard to imagine an earlier White would have come up with something like the Raconteurs’ Carolina Drama, a lengthy, brooding, powerful saga of dysfunction and violence. But you do miss the old breezy invention. There are still great songs – Just One Drink, Love Interruption, Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy – but even in their stripped-down state, you can somehow sense the painstaking labour that went into them. It is the sound of admittedly classy workmanship, from someone who used to make everything he did sound effortless.

Perhaps that’s how White wants to be seen these days: a dedicated, conscientious craftsman. Who knows? A great deal has clearly changed in the 18 years that separate this compilation’s opener from its closing track. One thing that hasn’t, as Acoustic Recordings makes clear, is its author’s desire to remain contradictory and elusive.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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