The last we heard from Jack White, he was in the midst of what appeared to be the artistic equivalent of a mid-life crisis. On 2018’s Boarding House Reach, the meticulously pursued primitivism that was his sonic trademark was set aside. Now, he was using ProTools, eschewing his usual “live in the studio” idealism. And he was rapping, if (even now) you can believe it. Everything seemed up for grabs. “This album is the culmination of, like, ‘I don’t care.’ I want it to sound like this,” White told Rolling Stone. “I don’t care how it was made.”
“I don’t care” typically is not a fruitful creative credo. And Boarding House Reach was accordingly greeted with mixed reviews, slammed as “a long, bewildering slog” by detractors and half-heartedly defended by supporters as evidence that White “seemed a little lost” … but in a good way? As for me, I liked it more than pretty much anybody. (Perhaps even more than White himself. Has he felt the urge to blast “Corporation” lately?) I’ve been trained to appreciate a record like Boarding House Reach by listening to so many mid-period albums by legacy artists that were dismissed in their time as middling but now register as interesting misfires. To my ears, Boarding House Reach signaled Jack’s Empire Burlesque era.
I evoke Bob Dylan’s little-loved (but pretty good, kind of!) 1985 album not only because Bob and Jack were around the same age when their respective “interesting misfires” dropped — Bob had just turned 44, and Jack was 43 — or because both Boarding House Reach and Empire Burlesque take a similar “I don’t care” approach to awkwardly embracing technology on the part of stubborn Luddites. Ultimately, I group these records together in my mind because I happen to enjoy their flaws. As I’ve often argued, listening to a good “bad” album by an artist with a big discography can tell you more about what that artist does well than listening to a regular good album, simply by emphasizing and underlining that person’s shortcomings as an illuminating counterpoint. (For one thing, neither Jack nor Bob should ever dance.) With White, there’s added poignancy to hearing this notorious control freak lose his grip a bit. He might command a Willy Wonka-like hold on his color-coded Nashville-based mini-empire, but on his records lately he’s grappled with wild, unwieldy sounds he doesn’t seem able to fully wrangle.
White’s latest record out Friday, Fear Of The Dawn — the first of two planned records set for 2022, ahead of a quieter LP called Entering Heaven Alive due in July — suggests that he hasn’t yet exited his Empire Burlesque wilderness period. (I haven’t heard Entering Heaven Alive yet aside from the pretty single that White issued in January, so I can’t confirm whether that record is his Oh Mercy.) Signs of an aging rocker struggling to find his footing in a musical landscape that’s hostile to blues guitarists from the upper midwest abound on this album. Like the rest of us, it appears that Jack sort of lost his damn mind during the shutdown. He has said that he stopped writing songs for a spell during the pandemic and focused instead on making furniture. Then he took to fasting for up to five days at a time, which sparked his creativity. Oh, and he also dyed his hair blue, which he claims has made him less recognizable at his neighborhood Target, though I suspect that White likely became more noticeable once he resembled an extra from The Fifth Element.
As for the music, White hasn’t ditched the layered sound of Boarding House Reach in favor of the austerity of old. If anything, Fear Of The Dawn is even busier than its predecessor, with songs unfolding as a series of sections that crash unpredictably into each other. One of the better tracks, “Eosophobia” — which translates to “fear of the dawn” — starts out as stuttering stoner metal, then opens up into a prog breakdown beamed in from an ’80s Rush record, and finally climaxes with some aggressive rap-rock caterwauling. And then there’s “Hi De Ho,” the bewildering early single that marries a Cab Calloway sample, a hip-hop verse from Q-Tip, White’s own mock-operatic belting, and some herky-jerky synth-rock riffage. It’s a mess! And if you didn’t like Boarding House Reach, I suspect it will give you a headache. But if you’re in the pro-Empire Burlesque camp like I am, well, I say bless this mess!
It should be noted that one big advantage that Fear Of The Dawn has over Boarding House Reach is that it rocks way harder. When he was in The White Stripes, White undercut his own proclivity for producing neo-Zeppelin arena rock by playing up the twee aspects of the band’s iconography. On his own and with various side projects like The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, however, he’s taken a less filtered approach to rawk. There’s still typically some element of the blues, though. But Fear Of The Dawn might be his least bluesy album ever, and it’s definitely his most metal. If you ever wished for Jack to make a Queens Of The Stone Age record, your ship has finally come in.
The most exciting part of the record is the first quarter, in which White charges out of the gate with three manic, electrifying hockey-hair anthems — the crunchy “Taking Me Back,” which synthesizes Gary Numan’s “Cars” with early Van Halen; the galloping, Paranoid-style title track; and the spastic techno-punk taunt “The White Raven.” The momentum dips with “Hi De Ho,” which signals the more hip-hop-driven middle section of the record, in which tunes like “Into The Twilight” and “What’s The Trick” kick up considerable dust but still come off more like “experimental” filler tracks than fully-fledged songs. When White returns more or less to straightforward (and reliably satisfying) garage rock fare in the record’s back half — “That Was Then (This Is Now)” is one of his best songs in that vein in years — it functions as a welcome respite from the forceful, “isn’t this fresh???“ lapels-grabbing of much of the album.
Moving briskly through 12 songs in under 40 minutes, Fear Of The Dawn somehow manages to feel simultaneously overstuffed and slight, like an album that was rounded out with a few marginal tracks in order to justify being a stand-alone record when it might have worked better as half of a more dynamic double record. (White has said he expects fans to like Entering Heaven Alive “three times as much.”) But again, that plays into the Empire Burlesque of it all. What this record demonstrates is that Jack White remains preternaturally gifted at pounding out the sort of kinetic riffs that can rouse both soccer crowds and sleepy dads. But now that we’ve heard him make another “embrace technology” album, the pump is primed for him to return to his dirtier and more primal original guise. I, for one, look forward to whatever his version of “his best album since Blood On The Tracks” is.