White's first solo album has a bit of a bad attitude about women, even as his all-female band helps drive the diversified rockers home
Jack White apparently hit a bad patch of girl trouble somewhere along the way recently. His divorce from Karen Elson? His musical divorce from Meg White?
Who knows? But it's fun to hear him sing laments about the fairer sex turning him into a "Blunderbuss," even as he sounds way too accomplished in this solo debut to have the rug pulled out from under him by anyone.
Ironically, or maybe deliberately, even though he's come up with a lot of songs about domineering or controlling women, White employs an all-female band on the majority of the 13 tracks.
That's one way of pre-empting any accusations that you might be suffering from female trouble.
This doesn't come off as an impulse to re-create the White Stripes' dual-gender dynamic on a larger scale, although for the first few familiar-sounding numbers, it's easy to think he might've decided to make all of "Blunderbuss" sound like a fuller-bodied take on his former duo. ("The White Stripes, now with actual bass, and drum fills!") Guitar riffage and simple, herky-jerky rhythms dominate "Sixteen Saltines," with its Who/"I'm Free"-style opening, and "Freedom at 21," feauring a riff that almost borrows from the Stripes' own "Seven Nation Army."
Not that it would necessarily be a big problem if White did just want to give us a version of the Stripes with all the missing instruments finally filled in instead of imagined phantom limbs. But White soon abandons his old red-and-white pallette for a wider-ranging one.
For several songs in a row, he doesn't even play any electric guitar, doing his controlled-hysterics vocals over tunes driven by vintage '70s-style electric keys, barrelhouse keys or his acoustic guitar. (When he does pick up the electric, though, he shreds — or maybe "shrieks" is the better word, given how his fast-and-cranky leads tend to sound like air raid sirens shorting out in a nuclear rain.)
An unusual number of tunes adopt a rollicking 6/8 time signature that never would've been Meg White's forte. You might wonder if living in Nashville has upped his Americana quotient even before the occasional pedal steel or mandolin kicks in.
But it's a very Dylanesque Americana, when it comes to the stinging lyrics. Just as Dylan once used Nashville musicians while accusing a woman of being an "Idiot Wind," White uses their gentler instrumentation while settling battle-of-the-sexes scores of his own.
The opening "Missing Pieces" has the album's funniest and most vivid lyrics — presenting a nightmare in which White's body parts keep going mysteriously and bloodily missing, until he finally concludes that sometimes "when they tell you that they just can't live without you, they ain't lying/They'll take pieces of you."
The numeral in the title "Freedom at 21" refers not to drinking age but the 21st century, with which White isn't completely enamored. "She don't care what kind of things people used to do," he sings — and a musical nostalgist like White could offer no greater insult than to point out a gal's lack of regard for the old ways.
It gets better. "Who the hell's impressed with you?" he demands in "Hypocritical Kiss." "I want names of the people that we know that are falling for this." It's a moment in modern rock confrontationalism that would make Dylan or Costello proud. "Weep Themselves to Sleep," meanwhile, is a paen to the earnest "men who fight the world and love the girls that try to hold their hands behind them."
With that kind of attitude, White may be single for a while. But we can be glad he's more than doubled up on the post-Stripes instrumentation for an album that feels like a whole meal in every way. It's all business, no blunders.