A far cry from the foot stomping blues rock many know him for, Jack White’s new offering is a trudge through a handful of disparate genres, with none of it done particularly well.
Jack White’s clumsy and often surreal wander through rap, spoken word, soul, funk, and blues, leaves you craving the energetic garage rock that sprung him from obscurity. The refreshing country/blues fusion that defined his last solo album — Lazaretto — is predominantly out, replaced by an ill-fitting, genre-hopping collection of songs, the only thing binding them being the occasional tight blues groove. Even with White’s intentionally created reputation for strangeness — whether that be claiming Meg White (his then wife) was his sister during live shows as The White Stripes, or collaborating with the Insane Clown Posse — his music was always punchy, and built along the same distinctive musical lines. The punch is gone, with the exception of one or two tracks, and the lines are stretched much too far.
Boarding House Reach stumbles between a dull rock ballad (Connected by Love), poor attempts at soul/funk (Why Walk a Dog?, Corporation), slightly jarring spoken word tracks (Abulia and Akrasia, Ezmerelda Steals the Show), and his first attempt at rap (Ice Station Zebra). In amongst these strange twists and turns there are a couple of songs in keeping with his repertoire — namely, Over and Over and Over, and Hypermisophoniac. While retaining their blue/garage rock roots these tunes come along with denser arrangements, some new (for White) synth sounds, layered rhythm sections, and the same satisfying riffs and grooves White is known for. There is enough freshness in these two tracks to keep his fans interested. It’s a shame we didn’t see an album of songs like these.
You can tell Jack White wrote Boarding House Reach alone in a small, spartan apartment with an army cot for a bed. If there were anyone else there, they might have advised him against his new set list and told him how much they had enjoyed Blunderbuss. There’s good reason people generally stick to their genre, especially when you have Jack White’s distinctive aesthetic. You didn’t hear Bob Marley play some Celtic folk tunes in between One Love and Three Little Birds, and you probably shouldn’t hear Jack White rap between Hypermisophoniac and Over and Over and Over. Listening to Boarding House Reach, it’s clear these genre lines are harder to cross than White might have hoped. Probably because rap, funk, and soul are hard. People dedicate their entire lives to just one, so it’s not surprising that his first stab leaves a lot to be desired. Though we know Jack White can create catchy, well crafted songs, this album isn’t full of them. This new offering will probably have his fans turning down rather than turning up. Hopefully we see him return to his blues roots sometime soon.