Jack White: Boarding House Reach review – the rulebook goes out the window

Digital effects, spoken-word, a brave attempt at rapping … after two decades of uptight indie, White has loosened his artistic shackles and seems to be having fun

Halfway through his third solo studio album, Jack White reminds listeners of the principle of caveat emptor. “I’m never gonna go where you want me to go,” he sings. “Listen up if you want to hear, and if you can’t stand it then …” – for a second, his voice is replaced by a female scream – “… right here.” Notice is thus served that Boarding House Reach is an album some way outside what one might expect from an artist who has spent the last 20 years exploring variations on a blues-influenced rock theme of fluctuating strangeness and complexity. A rigid, self-imposed set of rules governing everything from how the music was recorded, to what colour clothes should be worn while performing it, was part of the point.

Now, apparently rattled by a remark from Chris Rock, who flatly told him “no one cares how it’s done”, said rules have gone out of the window. Previously an analogue purist, White cut and pasted Boarding House Reach together using a computer. There is talk of modernity and of “expanding his musical palette”. The band he has assembled are session players who usually make their living performing with hip-hop and R&B stars such as Beyoncé, Jay Z, Kanye West and Talib Kweli.

Listeners confronted by White’s lyrical warning may well respond: it’s a bit late for that. By the time you reach it, you’ve already heard a spoken-word piece delivered by Australian blues singer CW Stoneking over a backdrop of weeping, vaguely Klezmer-like violins; five-and-a-half minutes of largely instrumental funk-rock jamming; and Hypermisophoniac, a patchwork of electronic bleeps and screams, discordant, apparently improvised piano and distorted squeals of guitar – a reminder that Captain Beefheart lurks in the pantheon of White’s heroes. Moreover, the track that contains the warning, Ice Station Zebra, opens with the improbable – and, it has to be said, fairly unlovely – sound of Jack White rapping.

And there’s more: more spoken-word tracks (one, Ezmerelda Steals the Show, is delivered in a voice that suggests White is about to burst into tears); and Respect Commander, which lurches from warp-speed 70s cop show theme to silence, to bluesy sludge-rock, decorated throughout with the kind of ham-fisted sampled orchestral stabs popular in mid-80s hip-hop and early house tracks.

The spectacle of someone often mocked for being the most uptight man in rock letting it all hang out is a curious one. Not least because you’re regularly struck by the fact that White sounds as if he’s enjoying himself. And then by the thought that Jack White sounding as if he’s enjoying himself has been a pretty rare occurrence in his oeuvre. But fun for its creator or not, the scattershot approach yields patchy results. Boarding House Reach resembles less a coherent album than a miscellany of ideas – or a collection of B-sides, with all the good and bad that entails.

At its best, it’s fantastic. The sense that loosening the artistic shackles has reinvigorated its creator courses through the album opener, Connected By Love: a perfect melding of White’s traditionalism with 21st-century electronics on which gospel-influenced backing vocals and a 60s southern soul-ish organ float over an ominous synthesised throb. And also on Over and Over and Over, which boasts the kind of ferocious riff White has been turning out for decades, but also has an appealing looseness; lithe funk rhythms and preposterous backing vocals abound, and White’s solo at the end is amped up to the point of hysteria.

Elsewhere, however, the album seems scrappy and undercooked. Corporation is two great funk-rock riffs fruitlessly in search of a decent song (although a remixer with a better understanding of dancefloor-tweaking dynamics may well be able to pull it into sharper focus). White and his band sound great on Get in the Mind Shaft, but still there is something woolly and unsatisfying about the song itself. And one wonders if anyone other than Jack White will be eager to hear the spoken-word stuff more than once.

It all ends with Humouresque, a beautiful sliver of pre-rock’n’roll pop with a melody derived from Dvořák and lyrics apparently transcribed by Al Capone while imprisoned in Alcatraz. It’s the kind of thing only White, among his peers, could pull off without it sounding hokey or like a knowing pastiche. And it is one of a handful of tracks here that could conceivably have appeared on a White Stripes album without there being a raising of eyebrows. It remains to be seen whether Boarding House Reach is a one-off or a signpost to a messier future for its maker, in which ideas are wildly thrown against the wall and listeners are left to pick out the good ones. As he has already made clear, he’ll do exactly what he wants.

This week Alexis listened to

Lone: Hyper Seconds
Matt Cutler takes on classic US house stylings with blissful results. Its breakbeat-infused flipside, Temples, is great too.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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