Jack White, ‘Boarding House Reach': Album Review
Ever since Jack White closed the book on the White Stripes at the top of the decade, he's taken his solo career into deeper and more expansive areas than he ever explored with his old band. Blunderbuss, from 2012, and 2014's Lazaretto occasionally shifted White's blues-fused garage rock to more modern playing fields. On his third solo LP, Boarding House Reach, he dives in even further.
It's not a complete submersion -- the 13 tracks are still tethered to White's past -- but he finds some new shades among the familiar black and white. The opening "Connected by Love" sets the tone with a wobbly synth ushering in a warehouse of sounds and voices over the next four and half minutes. By the time the female backing singers come in with support, the R&B overtones have bridged the past and present.
Written and recorded mostly on vintage equipment while White secluded himself from the outside world, Boarding House Reach is the sound of one of modern rock's most famous curmudgeons embracing the future by doing what he does best: mining the past.
Traces of funk, punk, pop, soul, gospel, blues and garage rock tear through the album like they were culled from a crate digger's weekend score. White bends a bit here and there -- this is his most contemporary-leaning album -- but there's no mistaking that Boarding House Reach was made by a guy with Stax, Muddy Waters and Led Zeppelin records in his collection.
The most bracing songs -- the R&B scorcher "Why Walk a Dog?," the '70s-funk workout "Corporation," the hip-hop flex "Ice Station Zebra," "Over and Over and Over," the closest thing on Boarding House Reach to a classic White Stripes track, and the epic freak out "Respect Commander," think Jimi Hendrix dropped into a Radiohead song -- are as playful as anything White has recorded.
At times they're looser too, pulling away from the often-clinical approach he's given to his songs and career over the past two decades. Still, all this careening from one style to another makes for one of White's less-focused works. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Boarding House Reach is an ambitious record from a singer and songwriter whose professional life started in a basic guitar-and-drums duo with his ex-wife.
That ambition is the backbone of the album. He loses control of it sometimes; the spoken-word interludes are more like pointless and intrusive detours than valuable links between songs, and some of the new musical shifts can be awkward fits. But mostly White aims big here, juggling genres in ways he's never tried before, and mostly succeeding. Boarding House Reach is wobbly -- even White's best work, the White Stripes' classic 2003 album Elephant, goes on a little too long -- yet rarely boring. For an artist who helped redefine rock music in the new millennium, it's a move forward.