The new Jack White album, Boarding House Reach, begins with about as strong an opening as is possible. Everything screams ‘electro-power ballad’, from the title to the majestic harmonies. Reverberating organ notes fill up the background only to be drawn to the fore in a chromatic-filled solo, which in turn is quickly superseded by a grinding, distorted guitar.
It is a wild, frenetic celebration of love’s transformative power, and the reckless instrumental section initiated by the organ makes sure of it. And yet White also manages to capture some of the tenderness in this sentiment. The effects-filled synth solo that ends the instrumental section collapses into gentle piano riffs with White singing alone (whereas before he has been surrounded by fantastic backing vocals).
The jaunty, strange feel of “Connected By Love” also applies to the rest of the album, and is mostly achieved through the range of electronic effects that are put to use. “Over And Over“, for example (whilst it is clearly the single, with its slightly contrived, marketable hook), has some pretty outlandish things going on.
Echoed screaming and progressively more de-tuned voices singing the refrain, which is punctuated by interesting textural contrasts that go from everything to nothing instantaneously. “Get In The Mind Shaft” also incorporates quite a lot, although here it is less in the realm of effects and more to do with synthesised music. For example, gently reverberating keys (that sound like a glockenspiel hit with a soft stick) combine with fat, wobbling notes.
These electronic touches (some bizarre and decorative, others more conventional and structural) radiate throughout Boarding House Reach, largely by way of the contrast they strike with the main musical material. Rock abounds here, but there is also a generous helping of funky grooves. Aligning with the former is “Respect Commander“, where the rock really comes through.
The reckless leading bassline has a touch of Primus about it, as does the primarily instrumental structure. But rock is a generous label, and even here, White uses a range of styles.
For example, the more funky rock that is also evident in “Corporation” and “Why Walk A Dog?” (which is the most reminiscent of The White Stripes) is also joined by a psychedelic undertone. “Everything You’ve Ever Learned” has a strangely-repeated phrase that then breaks down into shouted dialogue over an unrelenting, driving instrumental confusion.
On the more strictly funk end of White’s spectrum is “Corporation”, which sounds as if it could have been inspired by James Brown. White’s slightly distorted, addressing voice, his diction and occasional whoops all seem to refer to the funk legend, as do the interspersed instrumental sections (which dominate this track).
Quite apart from this, the bassline – hopping up and down – makes you want to dance, just like James. Even here, however, White leaves his electro-absurd thumbprint, with some obviously-synthesised clapping and the occasional vignette of chaos. This actually makes the track quite amusing, as it’s clear he’s not taking things too seriously.
But Jack White also combines different styles within single tracks, and “Hypermisophonia” is the most stark example of it. Throughout, a bleeping sound accompanied by a tone whose pitch oscillates violently (an effect also used in “What’s Done Is Done“) is overlaid by an acoustic piano that evolves into honky-tonk territory, and a fairly normal-sounding guitar.
These elements, along with the scattered, sometimes arhythmical drumming, somehow sound really funky and really jaunty: the contrast is ostentatious. But White’s mastery is exposed by this. His singing acts as the transformer and meeting point for the different styles he is using.
Managing to bring everything together and to make sense of this varied palate also characterises the album, and the outlandish profusion of electronic oddities somehow add up with all the instrumental parts to a coherent whole. It is hard to point directly at how this works, especially as the thematic content is so unusual (“Why Walk A Dog?” carries a political message – strangely articulated – about animal cruelty), but it is enough that it does.
In fact, Boarding House Reach is a very charming album, for all its extravagance, and this was especially confirmed by the final track, “Humoresque“. After all the show, it sounded tender, humble even, and definitely gave the message that the album was ending. The beautiful instrumental section populated by the piano and bass were mostly responsible for this. Whilst it built up steadily, it always stayed below a certain level, and shone with an innocent charm.
Jack White’s Boarding House Reach is out now, purchase it on iTunes here, and stream it below.
Words by Ed Edwards