As critically venerated a figure as Jack White is in the landscape of modern rock, it’s been a surprisingly long time since his music has generated as much public interest as his tireless self-promotional efforts as a specialty vinyl huckster, record-label mogul, and ranting Luddite. But even as White continues to set the industry abuzz without having to pick up a guitar—his recent decision to ban cellphones on his upcoming tour has predictably rankled many and overjoyed others—his third solo album, Boarding House Reach, is his first to play like a major career statement. A postmodern assault of freaked-out sonic ataxia, it’s messy, wildly uneven, and at times even close to unlistenable, but its sheer audacity makes it utterly intriguing.
In the traditional verse-chorus sense, there are very few actual songs on Boarding House Reach. And the few that could be categorized as such rank among the weakest of White’s career, including the lumbering, hookless opener and lead single, “Connected By Love,” a schlocky gospel-rock pastiche that finds White falling prey to the all-too-common blue-eyed soulmeister delusion that voice cracks and singing out of tune constitute emoting. The track’s un-catchy melody lazily recurs on the nondescript country waltz “What’s Done Is Done,” while a similarly overzealous backing vocal style shows up on the fuzzed-up rocker “Over and Over and Over,” a song White originally wrote in the mid-2000s and has attempted to record multiple times since.
Almost everything else on Boarding House Reach blurs together into a trippy, disorienting futuristic soundscape. There are plenty of recognizable genre signifiers heard throughout—funky clavinet, hip-hop drums, White’s own piercing guitar pyrotechnics—but they’re all blended together in an almost alien fashion. Given its scarcity of melodic hooks, not to mention actual singing, the album derives excitement from its jagged grooves and constantly mutating electronic flourishes. (The creative editing that made these sonic collages feasible was facilitated by White’s first-ever dalliance with Pro Tools—once a blasphemous proposition for a notorious analog fetishist.)
If the combination of bleating robot noises and atonal free-jazz piano that constitutes “Hypermisophoniac” was intended to induce the title condition, well, the track is a ringing success. And White’s stabs at anti-corporate subversion, heard on the game-show music/punk hybrid “Everything You’ve Ever Learned” and, unsurprisingly, “Corporation,” are a little hard to take seriously considering that he himself is the face of a company, Third Man Records, that relentlessly hawks overpriced novelty swag like baseball jerseys.
When everything clicks, though, Boarding House Reach can be infectious. The giddy funk groove of “Corporation” is energetic, while the lush synths and vocoder vocals of “Get in the Mind Shaft” produce an entrancing futurism, like something out of a dream. And even as White hops between ostensibly familiar genres, from the type of swaggering blues-rock workout he’s known for (“Respect Commander”), to a daring foray into old-school hip-hop (“Ice Station Zebra”), none of it sounds quite like what you’d expect. On the former, his crunchy riffing speeds up and slows down, disappears and then takes over again, punctuated by whirring electronics, as he shrieks about his femdom fantasies. It’s hardly “Ball and Biscuit” all over again, to say the least.
Divorced from full-album context, any of these songs might appear incomprehensible. But taken together as an immersive soundscape occasionally interrupted by disjointed experiments and formulaic rock songs, they begin to make sense. And perhaps best moment comes when White decides to turn even that blueprint on its head. The final track, “Humoresque,” is a rendition of a famous 1890s Dvořák piece with lyrics by Howard Johnson, as recollected on a manuscript written by Al Capone in prison that White purchased at auction. If that backstory isn’t interesting enough, White’s rendition undoubtedly is. The gentle soft-shoe style, the swooningly romantic lyrics, and White’s sweetly tender singing are all completely unlike anything else in his catalogue. As Boarding House Reach proves, that’s certainly no guarantor of quality, but at least it means the album is never boring.