Review: Jack White takes progressive leap with ‘Boarding House Reach’

Review: Jack White takes progressive leap with 'Boarding House Reach'

By Lucy Kiefert, Round Table entertainment managing editor

Jack White, former frontman of The White Stripes, current member of The Dead Weather and The Raconteurs, and founder of independent, Nashville-based record label Third Man Records, released his third solo album, “Boarding House Reach,” on March 23. His past two albums, “Blunderbuss” and “Lazaretto,” left much to be lived up to, and though White took an unexpected turn with “Boarding House Reach,” the album certainly fascinates with the same power as his past two works.

With outside influences that take the form of conga fills, saturated guitar solos, ringing organ hits, full-chorus accompaniments, and buzzings and beepings not unlike those of a classic 8-bit video game, “Boarding House Reach” sounds like the electric ramblings of a mad scientist caught in a time warp, at ties with both the nostalgia of the past and the immediacy of the future.

Songs like “Over and Over and Over” and “Ice Station Zebra” shake with encapsulated rage in typical Jack White fashion but display an obvious, current-day revamp that is both challenging and refreshing, while numbers like “Abulia and Akrasia” and “Ezmerelda Steals the Show” hold listeners in the puzzling yet entrancing grasp of spoken word verses that continually swell with anticipation. Indeed, “Boarding House Reach” feels intensely needed now more than ever, in a musical climate that is so often threatened by the possibility of growing stale.

However, despite its better parts, “Boarding House Reach” is undeniably a conflicting listen, because the first instinct that surfaces is to be confused, put off, a bit revolted by White’s decision to mold together sounds that – in a traditional, musical sense – do not blend. But then, after some pondering, one might wonder if that is exactly the point. Perhaps White’s intention with this album was to confuse people.

Perhaps songs like “Hypermisophoniac” and “Respect Commander” – with their wordless, half-instrument and half-machine breaks that later build into fuller concepts – exist purely to force White’s audience to expand their limits on what they consider to be music. And what do we consider to be music? Is it just what sounds pleasing to us? Is it just what we can most easily digest without questioning its existence, without wondering why it is the way that it is? Or is it far broader than that?

Is music any kind of expression that can be recorded and distributed and divulged in by those who are always willing to reconfigure their listening expectations? If so, “Boarding House Reach” is music – good music. The kind of music that a fan may look back on in twenty years and faintly recognize as a change in that particular artist’s overall sound.

Without a doubt (as if any person could have one about a man who crafted a guitar riff that is so much of a separate entity, it’s a stadium chant), Jack White knows how to write a song. He has consistently proven this throughout his career and with all of his musical endeavors. But if White is choosing to change the very chemical makeup of his songs and, in the process, push us up against whatever prevents us from being accepting of this, should we not allow him to do so?

I believe we should. But Jack White does not need approval from me, or from you, or from that guy fiddling around on a smartphone in the back row of one of his shows (this guy would probably get kicked out, anyway). All Jack White needs is his own self-assurance. And on this album, he’s got plenty to go around.

“Boarding House Reach” is Jack White’s urgent howl to the world that wastes no time trying to be clean-cut or precise, and certainly not polite. He has something to say and he is going to say it now, whether anyone is willing to listen or not. But those wise enough to keep an ear out will notice that something has shifted here, and maybe something major.