Essential New Music: Jack White’s “Boarding House Reach”

Of the many would-be millennial “rock ’n’ roll saviors” kicking around in the early aughts, Jack White has done the most, both with the White Stripes and beyond, to merit the mantle—even if he’d likely scoff at it (outwardly, at least). He’s become one of the very few (only?) honest-to-goodness rock stars to emerge this century, delved into and reconnected with the messy, idiosyncratic spirit of the music’s vital, primal roots—which is to say, among other things, not forgetting about the “’n’ roll” part—while also, and increasingly, remaking it in his own image. Not surprisingly, White’s got some thoughts on the subject of influence and innovation, which turn up on his third solo album in the form of “Ice Station Zebra,” a bashing, swaggering gonzo-funk polemic: “If you rewind the tape, we’re all copying God.” It’s a sentiment that smacks equally of hubris or humility, depending how you angle it—which seems just about right for White.

Of course, as he’s rapped in the past, even God herself has fewer plans than he—and that’s never been more true than here, with what is by some distance the weirdest, wildest White we’ve yet encountered on record. Boarding House Reach may start off in readily recognizable territory, with rather rote, lumbering gospel-tinged ballad (and lead single) “Connected By Love,” but we don’t really get back there until the penultimate country/folk “What’s Done Is Done” (a lovely, possibly suicidal shuffle that nevertheless features an amusingly loopy synth solo.) In between, we get an unpredictable array of deconstructed bangers, shape-shifting jams and freakouts, and woozily atmospheric spoken-word passages—along with a biting, brooding canine-rights diatribe/dirge and a jazzy piano rendition of a sentimental Dvorák setting that was apparently once transcribed by Al Capone.

Replete with percussive tangents, synth squelches and densely warped voice-play—even when he’s throwing the headbangers a bone and playing (quite explicitly) into Promethean rock-god mythology with the Zep-worthy riffage and block-rockin’ beats of “Over And Over And Over”—this kaleidoscopic gallimaufry is a seemingly ultimate repudiation of the White Stripes’ studied minimalism and formal concision. It doesn’t ever violate White’s analog ethos and, somehow, never seems to stray all that far from the myriad shades and permutations of the blues. Given White’s stature, it’ll get hailed as everything from blinding, boundary-pushing brilliance to wanton, haphazard (and possibly heretical) indulgence, but it really all depends on your vantage point. As White bellows on one of the album’s strangest interludes, “Do you want to question everything?/Think of a good question!”

—K. Ross Hoffman