Jack White’s career has seen him continually acting as both musician and strategist, as well as the veritable figurehead for the many projects in which he’s immersed himself, from the White Stripes to the Dead Weather. On Blunderbuss, White goes it alone for the first time, and the odd music that results shows him at his freest yet, a state that allows for variety but also some disarray. Released from the dictates of the templates that have governed his career so far, he embarks on tangential excursions that have familiar roots but end up in unexpected places. Blunderbuss is an album whose wide-ranging looseness recalls the trinity of post-Beatles solo projects (Ram, Plastic Ono Band, and the voluminous All Things Must Pass) where Paul, John, and George unleashed years of pent-up material that might not have fit well under the group’s famous name.
Most of the songs here hew closely to White Stripes-style templates, exploring gospel and bluegrass influences, but they lack a certain primal quality that defined that band’s sound, with more complicated drum work and broader instrumentation. The title track plays off weepy country strings in a surprisingly gentle fashion, and White allows the music lots of room to breathe, with less vocal stylization and freer rein given to the backing musicians. The same is true for “Sixteen Saltines,” a snarling romp that, aside from the keyboard riffs that underscore the verses, comes closest to a classic White Stripes song. Nothing on the album is too novel, but White’s subtlety and restraint is impressive, especially on tracks like “Love Interruption,” with its mild, murmuring horns and lack of percussion.
All of this makes Blunderbuss feel satisfying, but not astoundingly progressive. It’s a solo debut that can be interpreted in two ways, with White either easing his way into a new template or putting window dressing on the same old ideas. Unlike Paul, John, and George, White was always the sole dynamo and leader of his band, which means that shaping a solo career will simply be a matter of finding a new prevailing construct to work off of, something he’s done with varying success in his various side projects. If he can find a new angle, Blunderbuss may be the first sign of great things ahead.