Secret Meeting score: 39
by Philip Moss, Joseph Purcell and Phil Scarisbrick
Jack White is a throwback. A man whose name now transcends the early 2000’s independent, alternative guitar scene that he grew from with his band, The White Stripes. After forming two super groups (The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather), he starred alongside guitar heroes The Edge and Jimmy Page on the excellent It Might Get Loud film, created jobs in his native Detroit by building a new vinyl pressing plant at Third Man Records, and co-writing with Beyonce, he’s what you might call the CEO of Innovative Americana Music Inc.
So, returning to release his third solo album under his own name, after the excellent Blunderbuss (2012) and Lazaretto (2014) records, fans are quite rightly questioning, where’s his head at? Will all the extra-curricular activities have taken their toll or is White able to balance the day jobs?
His output has always been schizophrenic in flavour, but Boarding House Reach opens with its most straight song, Connected By Love. Lyrically, it says nothing. Musically, it’s flat. Vocally, where White usually excels, he sounds bored. And neither its backing vocals – lifted straight off Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody – or its White-by-numbers guitar solo can rescue this bog standard blast of ‘meh’ out of the mire. But sadly, this song is the least of the record’s worries.
Over a lazy drum machine, Why Does A Dog? unveils itself – through a hotchpotch of undercooked ideas and gobbledygook lyrics – to be possibly the worst song of White’s career. The largely instrumental, Corporation, opens over another lazy, White-by-numbers guitar part, before transcending into a bundle of hideous yelps and screams that make it borderline unlistenable. ‘Who’s with me?’ the usually cocksure White repeatedly questions, seemingly looking for comradeship. In response to your question, Jack, sadly not me on this offering.
Abulia and Akrasia is a spoken word piece that sounds like a 90 second snippet from a Tarantino idea that never left his typewriter. A metaphor, perhaps, for this whole project in general. What’s Done Is Done (a pleasant duet with Esther Rose), does feel like the basis of a decent song and on a better . But, at the opposite end of the spectrum to the massively overproduced sections of the album, it feels unfinished albeit in a different way. Everything You’ve Ever Learned is reminiscent of the worst college band you’ve ever heard. Ezmerelda Steals the Show is the nursery rhyme that no one can – or wants to – remember. Get In The Mind Shaft is his attempt at a Kraftwerk opus that ends up sounding like a Daft Punk b-side.
While their contemporaries were different incarnations of the same influences, The White Stripes looked back further. They took the sounds and soul of pre-war blues-smiths such as Son House, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Robert Johnson and Leadbelly, chewed them up and regurgitated them back out in a way that felt truly unique and modern. White has been able to keep this knack for using the past to create the future up through his various projects since. Unfortunately, Boarding House Reach feels devoid of influence. That isn’t to say it sounds original, it doesn’t, But that spark that fired White’s earlier work seems to have eluded him.
Ironically, the best track on the record – Over and Over and Over – was reportedly written as long back as 2005, and has been considered for inclusion on both the last White Stripes album and by the Raconteurs. It feels vital, has punch and certainly stands out among this confused collection.
But this aside, Boarding House Reach is an annoying, hugely frustrating listen that’s not just throwaway, but a ramshackle of messy, confused and bizarre for the sake of it ideas that should have been left on the cutting room floor. This record is so below par that it makes you wonder if he has done it on purpose. Is this some sick kind of self-sabotage? If that were the case, I’d be more impressed as it would make this record a success. Surely the man who wrote Hotel Yorba, Fell In Love With A Girl, Seven Nation Army, The Hardest Button To Button, Steady As She Goes, and Carolina Drama can’t have made this record earnestly? If he has, then maybe his 40s would be better suited to the usual stereotypical pastimes of that age group. Rounds of golf, mowing the lawn, pricing up life insurance, or partaking in a weekend trip to Ikea. All of which are an adrenaline-fuelled thrill ride in comparison to this record. Not so much innovation, but irritation.