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Album Of The Week

Wrong Turn: Jack White’s Boarding House Reach
Michael Hann , March 15th, 2018 07:40

On Jack White’s new album, moments of greatness are swamped by pomp, noodling and mediocrity.

A few years back I spoke to a number of the young musicians in Nashville’s thriving garage punk scene. Every one of them, without fail, mentioned what a positive force Jack White is - giving them studio time, releasing their music, championing them when the rest of the world ignored them. The Third Man catalogue is vivid proof of a record label run by people who really, really love and support music. And while the label might be best known for its limited editions and one-offs, it's also given a longterm platform to great talents such as Margo Price, who was spurned by the rest of Nashville until Third Man gave her a break.

White has been a positive force, too, for those of us who love rock & roll music. Even as rock finds its horizons shrinking and its colour palette fading, there's White, still manipulating the tools available to him to try to paint new landscapes. At times it has looked like Luddism, especially in the Dogme-like constrictions he imposed on himself, but the impulse hasn't exactly harmed him. Put it this way, if you can name another rock musician this century to have written a riff sung in sports stadiums around the world, by political activists, and by people who couldn't care less about rock music, I’d be keen to hear about them.

So even with his control freakery, his filthy temper, his capacity for bearing grudges, on balance Jack White’s presence in the music world seems to be a force for good. And, yes, he’s made some great, great records.

But here’s the thing. Boarding House Reach is a bad record. It has got better with every listen, but that’s from a starting point of astonishment that a major artist could release a record that sounds so completely half-arsed. Now, after a couple of weeks of listening to it, I think of its badness as something I can appreciate for its comforting familiarity. It’s like watching the football hooligan film Green Street and marvelling that no one told Charlie Hunnan quite how unlike an Eastender he sounds.

What's curious about Boarding House Reach is that it is full of brilliant bits and great ideas that are left undeveloped. There is a distinct whiff hanging over this album, the whiff of an artist too powerful to be gainsaid. When White unveiled 'Corporation', someone should have complimented him on the fabulous, sinuous, Stevie Wonder-like funk pattern that snakes through it, and the way White marries it to a wholly in-character descending riff. But they should have said: "Jack, those bits are great, really great. But you haven't written a song to go with them." Instead, the track descends into nearly six minutes of noodling, with White bellowing about his plans to form a corporation and wanting to know who's with him.

'Hypermisophoniac' doesn't have any ballast at all. It's not a mood piece, or a fully formed song. It's the kind of thing that provokes musicians to talk about how much fun they had in the studio recording it, with no thought for us, the ones having to listen to the bloody thing. 'Ice Station Zebra' features White rapping over a two-note bass pattern interspersed with occasional flurries of piano and drums. White is every bit as good a rapper as Weird Al Yankovic. Yet, again, there's a fantastic bit – just over two minutes in, when White calms down, and starts softly half-singing over a jazzy piano pattern backed with bongos, joined by little wails of wah-wah guitar. For 20 seconds or so, there's a flash of excitement: here it is! Here's the song! And then White loses focus again, and that section drags and fades.

For every great 20 seconds, right across the album, there’s four minutes of padding. The throwaways that might once have added colour and texture to a White album have become the main event, and the actual songs have become the supporting cast. The great shame is that the wholly constructed songs are fantastic: 'Connected By Love’ is a perfect fusion of electronics and a wholly conventional deep soul structure, exploding into a dramatic, overwhelming chorus. That marriage of modernity and tradition is also the heart of the gorgeous country-soul ballad 'What's Done Is Done', with its two-part Emmylou-and-Gram harmonies. But that's just two great songs. 'Humoresque' is delicate and charming, but insubstantial; 'Over And Over And Over' is White-by-numbers; 'Why Walk A Dog?' is a paler version of ‘Connected By Love’; the rest are the troves of unfulfilled ideas.

Jack White has a perfect right to do exactly as he wants. But, with White, the intrigue of making music with a conceptual underpinning always came paired with songs so huge and indelible that they were impossible to ignore. Boarding House Reach, sadly, is eminently ignorable.