Blues-rock icon Jack White falls creatively short on ‘Boarding House Reach’

There’s no denying that Jack White has been one of the most influential forces in keeping the genre of classic blues-rock relevant to modern ears through his work with The White Stripes and, more recently, his personal catalog. White also carries a strong presence in the Nashville music scene, with his Third Man Records label scouting for and propelling young, promising artists who fall under the radar of larger labels. But despite this reputation, the songwriter’s latest release, “Boarding House Reach,” suggests that maybe White’s solo career is on the verge of creative bankruptcy.

Though White boasted of the avant-garde direction of the songs comprising “Boarding House Reach” in the weeks before its release, the whole of the record ends up leaving the impression that he wrote these songs not with any specific intention or message, but strictly out of boredom. Instead of focusing his newest batch of music on the underlying structures of tracks, White seems to have gotten carried away with the idea of throwing in a cavalcade of “weird” auxiliary elements that, in looking past their novelty, have no real effect on the foundation of his tracks. Take, for instance, “Hypermisophoniac,” a song that despite its vacillating synths and oddly shifted vocals, maintains a repetitive hook of “Ain’t no runnin’ / When you’re robbing a bank” that never really evolves into anything else.

The unfortunate theme of monotony isn’t reserved strictly to “Hypermisophoniac” however, for it seems to bleed into the overwhelming majority of “Boarding House Reach.” The song “Corporation” shows us the worst of it, though, despite being the longest one on the record. Through “Corporation,” White finds comfort in the line “Who’s with me?” which he scatters across each manic verse. In the latter half of the track, he tries to fill the track with high-pitched, slide-whistle-style screaming that grows irritating almost immediately. While White seems to have been reaching to create exciting jams of multi-instrumental expression, most of these songs end up becoming listless before they even reach their halfway points.

The few saving graces of “Boarding House Reach” fall at the last two tracks of the record, “What’s Done Is Done” and “Humoresque.” The first presents itself as a dejected tavern-ballad with a laid-back drum-pad beat that leads into a tasteful glistening synth break in the middle of the track. After that, “Humoresque” proves to be one of White’s most reflective and tender works of songwriting. It features a subdued, bouncing piano melody that, later in the song, shifts into a dynamic, jazz-influenced chord progression that carries the album into its meditative finale.

Though “Boarding House Reach” closes itself out in a beautiful fashion, its difficult to ignore the majority of mediocre preceding tracks that leave much to be desired on White’s third solo project. For a man that has been hailed as a pioneer of modern rock music, Jack White certainly contradicted his longstanding reputation here, providing little of substance to a discography that may as well have been left untampered. As difficult as it is to accept, White may have unwittingly indicated his waning influence as a relevant musician of the day. And just as every child is forced to accept at some point that the parents they idolize are not in fact superheroes, “Boarding House Reach” serves as a reminder to fans that Jack White is just as capable as any artist of releasing content that ultimately underwhelms.

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1 Comment

  1. Avatar
    Zach Wilbourn
    April 6, 2018

    I too found this record very difficult to listen to. Based on the rest of Jack White’s solo catalog, I expected something much more developed both musically and conceptually. This, however, could not be farther from that. Ninety percent of the time I feel that the record has the very weird copy/paste format with zero direction and very little conceptual thought. While I could maybe understand the appeal of this album to some, it just seems to be a cornucopia of various failed experiments, in my opinion.
    I will say, tracks like “Why Walk a Dog?” and certain sections of “Respect Commander” have the most amount of cohesiveness as opposed to their neighboring tracks. “Ice Station Zebra”, which features rap verses from Jack White himself, actually makes for some interesting listening. I have yet to decide if it does it for me or not yet. This track also features some very tasteful hand percussion as well as piano leads reminiscent of New Orleans style jazz. I’m also a fan of the synths delivering a funk flavoring on top of a very stock but appropriate drum beat. However, this track is accompanied by some of the choppiest production on the record, completely killing the mood. “Over and Over and Over” delivers elements from White’s past musical projects combined with these newer experimental ideas. This is arguably the strongest track on the record. On a scale of one to ten? This album comes out to a light five to me.

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