There are times on Sea of Cowards, the loud, wooly second album from semi-supergroup the Dead Weather, where already-loose songs give way to quivering, dissonant stretches of noise, cruddy effects, and guitar lines piled messily on top of one another. On a less devoted album, one whose commitment to burbling chaos wasn’t equal to its allegiance to barbed, catchy hooks, this might seem like the nail in the coffin. Here it’s like watching a crumbling house collapse, a gut pleasure that’s only heightened by its inevitability.
It might seem easy to pick at the tossed-together nature of these songs, many of which feel like big, rotten salads: too many elements, all of them unsightly. Not to mention Jack White’s half-nonsensical lyrical arrogance and Alison Mosshart’s put-on tortured yowl, which often leaves her sounding like PJ Harvey’s too-eager younger sister. But the curdled, skuzzy appearance of these textures is ultimately comforting. These are songs that derive a continuous pleasure from making a mess of themselves.
It’s also heartening to see White, who takes a larger presence here than on last year’s Horehound, getting his ya ya’s out without having to worry about things like coherent song structures. Splitting vocal duties with Mosshart (formerly of the Kills), and backed by Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone Age, the Waxwings) and Jack Lawrence (the Raconteurs, the Greenhornes), he quickly establishes himself as a kind of twisted master of ceremonies, issuing staccato commands and muddled, howling guitar lines.
So, yes, Sea of Cowards is something of a jumble. But it’s an entirely ecstatic one. White uses the side project as an opportunity to vent his more stridently ludicrous material, the kind of megaphone announcement, blues-jive moments that he tries out every so often with the White Stripes. The lyrics are brash and absurdly entertaining, but some of the best moments here are those of fuller abandon, where he and Mosshart’s voices dispose of words and sink down into the sludgy mix.
“The Difference Between Us” finds itself consumed by a hideous, squelching wave of sound, signaling the band’s commitment to subverting and improving the formula of their first album. “Gasoline” tweaks a simple organ line into the crux for a piffly tap-dance snare beat, splashing the tidal reverberation with cluttered bursts of guitar. The final result is oily, nasty, and just dumb enough, contributing to an album that handles ugliness capably enough to make it beautiful.