The Lowdown: Weird. If there’s one word that’s been used to describe Jack White’s latest record, Boarding House Reach, by critics and fans alike, “weird” is it. But White himself has never been normal, and at this point in his career, this audacious hodgepodge isn’t entirely unexpected. It feels like a natural evolution for the singer/songwriter/guitar-master who’s made a career out of channeling bluesy bombast with punk rock-style urgency. This time he just added more funky freak-outs.
The Good: Like Funkadelic’s wondrously cosmic jamfests, Free Your Mind… And Your Ass Will Follow and especially Maggotbrain, Boarding House Reach has some dark layers. But dark doesn’t have to mean drab or hopeless. White is still having fun and sparking joy, and by incorporating new sounds — new wave synths, pizazz-y organ parts, and spoken word, which some have called an attempt at “rap” — he’s re-invigorating his style. The catchiest track, “Over and Over and Over”, brings to mind early Rage Against the Machine, driven by relentless rhythms and rants, both of which feel right for a performer like White making music in these troubled times. It feels right for us listeners, too.
The Bad: Some might find him blustery and his delivery over-dramatic, but White is clearly trying to capture the soulful feeling of his live shows on Reach. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it works until it doesn’t, such as on the singles “Connected by Love” and “Corporation”, which take the classic White sound and tweak it, sometimes too much. But the question remains: Is there ever such a thing as “too much” for a rock and roll provocateur like White? Some will listen and say, yes.
The Verdict: It seems everyone has something to say about Boarding House Reach, and for White, that is ultimately a good thing. The essence of experimentation is taking chances. As we get older, it’s how we shake things up. The key to pulling off something new without looking like you’re trying too hard (or selling out) is maintaining the essence of who we are when doing so. White’s reverence for classic music of the past is still a big part of who is he here; he’s just shifting focus with a more manic and multi-faceted approach. That’s not weird. That’s smart.
Essential Tracks: “Over and Over and Over”, “Connected by Love”, and “Corporation”