Even though Jack White has long cultivated a millennial bluesman persona — or at least maintained some anachronistic relationship with the blues — you rarely got the sense the White Stripes frontman was telling you his troubles. White’s debut solo album promises to unpack a lot of luggage: In the last year or so, he’s been deserted by bandmate Meg White and seen the White Stripes dissolve; he divorced from wife/supermodel/singer Karen Elson; and he’s seen the Black Keys chip away at his patented, arena-filling, two-piece business model and then take up residence in the backyard of his headquarters in Nashville. All the while, a recent New York Times article revealed, White’s been nursing a Willy Wonka complex that goes far deeper than an affinity for peppermint candies.
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune do surface often on Blunderbuss, which begins with “Missing Pieces,” a stylistic feint (it’s built on an off-kilter jazz-rock keyboard riff) and an obvious angry scribble about one or both of his ex-wives: “They’ll take pieces of you and they’ll stand above you and walk away.” Be rightfully wary of solo albums that begin this way, but rest assured that Jack White is too populist to fill two vinyl sides with ponderous gloom and pointed fingers. Blunderbuss turns out to be a head trip in every key. The fully charged “Sixteen Saltines” parties harder than Sleigh Bells and contains more juvenile delinquency than a Harmony Korine film, but its manic thrill is fleeting. White more often lands on country blues, whether it’s acoustic and backed by a female vocalist (“Love Interruption”) or electric and written by Little Willie John (“I’m Shakin’”). Three-quarters Kinks music-hall and one-quarter Southern juke joint, “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” — destined to be misheard for years to come as “Hippopotamus Poor Boy” — is a self-referential shuffle and perhaps an acknowledgement of rare failure: He was once a color-coded object of pop art; he is now relegated to releasing albums under his own name.
When the urge for armchair psychiatry subsides, we’ll begin to hear what’s really happening. It’s in the second drum track that’s only present in the left channel of “Freedom At 21,” creating a playful polyrhythm. It’s in the complicated, prog-like structure of “Take Me With You When You Go.” If it’s not the last chance to crack wise on Meg White’s drumming skills, it’s at least time to acknowledge the wider musical palette at play. (The Raconteurs and the Dead Weather were different, sure, but seldom exhibited range.) It’s rare that an artist can clear the psychic deck and evolve musically at the same time, but that’s exactly what’s going on here. A blunderbuss is a shotgun, and Jack White is unloading.