The good news is that Jack White’s first solo album sounds ruled by his real-time nervous system. He’s made an album of impetuousness and instinctive design: He’s allowed first-take buzzes and imperfections, created whole songs out of small and fast notions.
Forcible freshness-protection is his first talent. Parts of the making of Blunderbuss have looked like an aesthetic health regimen: Releasing a single on flexi-disc by means of helium balloon from the doors of his Nashville record-label office, as he did on April 1; forming separate male and female bands and taking both on tour, then calling on each at his whim; arranging an overwrought, almost violent ode to love — that would be this album’s Love Interruption — for Wurlitzer organ, clarinet and shaky vocal harmony.
Strange, then, that the excellent ingredients don’t make the album better. Something’s missing. White essentially directed the White Stripes from 1997 to 2007 as its singer, guitarist, songwriter and producer; he then went on to other bands in which he had a less dominating role, the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather, and he’s produced several dozen vinyl singles and albums, with the resources of his own studio and label, Third Man. But Blunderbuss is the work that seems to come closest to his own vision since the close of the White Stripes, and it can help bring into focus what made the older group so good.
Here, on Blunderbuss, is White’s electric guitar sound, digitally altered and cartoonishly flexible, set off from the archaisms he likes to put around him; here’s his singing, high and intense; there’s his production, with big cymbals and big reverb. What’s not here so much is the mysterious, paramusical part: the sense of occasion, the strength of the gesture.
Granted, it’s a categorically different project. With the White Stripes, economy of scale gave him a built-in organizing principle, and a kind of critical distance. They slayed within fixed limits, using aspects of blues, rockabilly, punk and glam-rock to perform, essentially, disruptions and meta-commentaries. Blunderbuss isn’t arch like that. It isn’t so into radical juxtapositions. It’s not severe; it’s familiar and welcoming — when soft (the slithering On and On and On), when loud (the Stripesy Sixteen Saltines) and when medium (the country-rock waltz I Guess I Should Go to Sleep). For an artist so heavily into artifice, this album breathes the easier air of classic rock and old country music; much of it feels relaxed, almost natural.
Few songs on Blunderbuss truly knock the wind out of you, as the White Stripes could — even with riffs that were fragmentary, simple or borrowed. This is a songwriter’s record, and a kind of orchestrator’s record; there’s also a new overall vehemence in the lyrics, hammering on dishonesty, jealousy, immorality. (“Who the hell’s impressed by you?” he sings in Hypocritical Kiss. “I want names of the people/that we know that are falling for this.”) But the meat of the songs — riffs, chord progressions, dynamic shifts — feel less distinguished.
The mainstays of the record’s players are members of what will be the female touring band, including the drummer Carla Azar of the Los Angeles band Autolux, the acoustic upright bassist Bryn Davies and the pianist Brooke Waggoner. Others pass in and out, Nashville musicians of different kinds: the country session-player Fats Kaplin, Lillie Mae Rische of the country-rock band Jypsi, the guitarist Jake Orrall from the garagey duo Jeff the Brotherhood. It’s both a core band record and an extended-cast record, and maybe that’s part of the problem: Despite all White’s small good ideas, it doesn’t have a big, binding, group-sound one.