Jonah Bromwich is making the Wonka face right now.
As hard as I try to be fair and show the appropriate critical distance, there’s always going to be a vague sense of disappointment when Jack White releases a record without The White Stripes name on it. Along with all his other distinct abilities and idiosyncrasies, White has an astonishing capacity for compartmentalization. Every act is wholly conceived as a separate and coherent entity, and though there are crossovers in influence and occasional overlaps in sound, the projects all end up sounding, if not worlds apart, at least a couple countries away .
His new album Blunderbuss covers so much musical ground that it’s difficult to even identify any shortcomings, at least in terms of breadth. The thirteen songs on the album range from country to old time rock n roll to folk. For the most part, these are song sketches comparable in ambition to smaller Stripes tunes like the Elephant songs “You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket” or “I Want to Be the Boy.” And many of them are excellent, arriving in turn like 33’ singles from some alternate universe of American standards.
The country influence is the most notable element upon first listen. “Love Interruption” is a duet with Ruby Amanfu which makes use of what I think is an oboe and meditates on the destructive power of love. It’s perfectly arranged and charming, but it lacks commitment — a sketch of a song so expertly rendered that it can feel somewhat inauthentic, like a perfect 3D model of a specimen rather than the genuine article.
The title track, another country tune, is much better, as a mournful fiddle and White’s melodic whine conveys sentiments that feel realistically sentimental. There’s even a little bit of Dylanesque mythmaking in the couplet that begins the third verse: “corner exit, not tall enough, to walk out standing straight, designed by men so ladies would have to lean back in their gait.”
Much of the album navigates this spectrum, between technically perfect paeans to old sounds and songs that White is able to breathe actual life into. The curious, synthetic fate of “Love Interruption can also be witnessed in the single “Missing Pieces,” which never quite hits appropriately. But songs like “Freedom at 21,” which makes fantastic use of analogue recording by assigning separate sounds for speakers, and the jangly tin-pan tribute “Hip Eponymous Poor Boy” which is Wes- Anderson-cute without being annoying, provide some balance.
There is plenty to enjoy, even in the more formal studies here. “I’m Shakin” is the best of the bloodless, a name-dropping Bo Diddely rocker with a three piece band and a handclapping, doo-wopping choir. But it’s the vibrant album-ending “Take Me When You Go” that gives us a sense of what a fully committed and focused Jack White solo project might sound like—country and rock influences swirled into each other to the point where they’re inseparable.
There is an album that I can think to compare Blunderbuss to, and it’s not a White Stripes record. Paul McCartney’s newest album Kisses on the Bottom was a similarly disjointed tribute to the songs of his childhood, one that was essentially pleasant, with all the good and bad that the word pleasantness connotes, tied up in a friendly little package. White has done something similar with Blunderbuss. The individual songs here are mostly fantastic (and at least a couple of them will get regular spins for the rest of the year), but as a whole, the album is so indebted to the past that it feels as if a lot of energy has been lost somewhere in a time machine and Meg’s exciting, spontaneous sloppiness is more noticeably absent than ever before.
Expertly crafted, instrumentally perfect and creatively impressive, Blunderbuss is nothing you haven’t heard before. And while it’s the kind of nothing that you don’t mind hearing again and again it might leave you wishing for something that sounded both complete and completely new.