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For the past week, as I’ve listened to Jack White’s very good and pleasingly strange new album Boarding House Reach, I’ve thought often about Prince. Jack White reminds me of Prince. Is that an obtuse comparison? I’m not aware of anyone making the connection before, but the more I think about it, the more obvious it seems. Not only is Jack White like Prince, Jack White might very well be Prince.
Here, I made a list: Both men are musical geniuses from the midwest. Both men are obsessive about monochromatic color schemes. Both men set up their own fortresses of solitude in the middle of the country, ran them with military precision, and invited other artists to make records there and soak up their respective auras. Both men could be accurately described as “curmudgeonly Luddites.” Both men were considered guitar gods well past the point when guitar gods were relevant in pop culture. Both men formed a close collaboration with a female drummer at critical moments in their careers. Both men released their finest albums the same month they turned 26. (Purple Rain for Prince, White Blood Cells for White.) Both men can credibly rock a pencil-thin mustache.
I could go on.
The most crucial similarity between Prince and Jack White is a preoccupation with “real music.” For Prince, who spent much of his glory years in the ’80s making albums mostly by himself with the latest line of synthesizers and drum machines, “real music” entered his rhetoric in the last few decades of his life. On the back of his 2004 comeback LP, Musicology, Prince promised “real music by real musicians,” a motto he repeated throughout the album’s lengthy support tour. And for the next 12 years, “real music” was his brand. He loved talking about “real music” as much as he hated Spotify.
“People don’t understand real musicians anymore,” Prince complained in 2014. Then he cited a specific example: “Jack White is great, he’s the real thing, but he isn’t having hits.”
“Real music” is a matter of process — it is made by “real” musicians who play “real” instruments and write “real” songs and record them live on “real” vintage equipment. It is ultimately an elitist stance about preserving the exclusivity of music, which has been largely dismantled by modern technology.
“Real music” as a concept tends to irritate most people and almost all contemporary music critics. But imagine you’re a musical genius. Your brain is wired to understand music on a much deeper level than the average person. You have no choice but to believe that music should be done the “right” (i.e. your) way. This wiring is what makes you admirable, and annoying, to millions of normal humans.
Since the beginning of The White Stripes, White has been singularly enamored with process. His records are hard to make, and he foregrounds that struggle in the music. Jack White’s songs creak, squeak, squawk, and screech. They drip sweat and breathe heavy from strain. I once theorized that White’s insistence on making all aspects of music difficult — playing heavy and unwieldy guitars, recording on tape and editing with razor blades, writing songs based on ancient blues forms that aren’t immediate to pop-weaned audiences — stems from growing up with Michigan winters. Anyone who spends five months of the year snowbound must learn to view Mother Nature as a virtuous builder of character. Otherwise toughing it out in Detroit just feels like an unnecessarily punishing way to live.
The limitations of this lifestyle are plain. Prince managed the pain he put himself through until his body finally gave out. Jack White, now 42 and back with his first album in four years, has wisely opted to go a little easier on himself.
In various interviews promoting Boarding House Reach, White has admitted to using ProTools to edit together performances recorded live to tape with members of bands for Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, and Kanye West. In the realm of Jack White albums, where ProTools has been strictly verboten, this is like Quentin Tarantino selling his next movie directly to Netflix.
“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.”
Of course, because Boarding House Reach is a Jack White record, the how is still important, no matter the “I don’t care” disclaimers. White can’t help showing his work. (He also can’t stop complaining about technology, as the weird spoken-word piece “Ezmerelda Steals The Show” attests.) Listening to this record requires an ability to rock out to Jack’s new process.
Whereas the “classic” Jack White sound is austere, Boarding House Reach is layered to the point of sounding overstuffed. The wildest track, “Corporation,” requires a syllabus to enumerate all of the sonic references: There are Dick Dale guitars, Herbie Hancock keyboards, Kurtis Blow backbeats, and hysterical, high-pitched squeals that evoke a previously mentioned funk master from Minnesota. It’s like a pocket Paul’s Boutique.
Even “Over And Over And Over,” the album’s most relatively conventional rock track and a leftover from the White Stripes days, teases its bombastic blues-rock guitar riff with mock-operatic backing vocals, like Rage Against The Machine mashed-up with Queen’s Flash Gordon soundtrack. By the time he settles into “Respect Commander,” which boasts the album’s thickest and rawest guitar solo, White has already spent substantial time recreating the sound of robots playing Delta blues (“Hypermisophoniac”) and honing his rapping (!) skills against some killer death-metal double-bass drum fills (“Ice Station Zebra”). Jack White once named a record after the pared-down, abstract De Stijl art movement; this album is the opposite of that.
If it’s been a while since you’ve checked out a new Jack White album, Boarding House Reach will seem like an abrupt about-face. But if you set aside the “Jack White discovers ProTools!” storyline, it sounds like a pretty natural extension of White’s previous two solo records, 2012’s Blunderbuss and 2014’s Lazaretto. In the aftermath of The White Stripes’ demise, White embraced much greater expansiveness in his music, not just with multiple musicians but multiple bands, both on album and on the road.
If the White Stripes were purposely lean to the point of malnourishment, White on his own favors sumptuous musical banquets, moving beyond straightforward blues and punk into a broader world of country, folk, funk, arena-rock, and, increasingly, hip-hop. While Lazaretto anticipated White’s latest, charmingly awkward stabs at rapping, Boarding House Reach nods hardest at hip-hop with the kaleidoscopic production, which de-emphasizes guitars in favor of keyboards and aggressive beats on much of the record. But for all of the talk about the “old-timey” qualities of White’s music, Boarding House Reach merely underlines many of the changes he’s already made this decade.
What really sets Boarding House Reach apart from Jack White’s records is that making it seemed … fun. I’m not sure if Jack White would take that as a compliment, and believing that is a compliment probably means that I also care too much about process. (Also: I still like the Jack White records that were as much fun to make as churning butter.) But even geniuses need to loosen up sometimes, especially if they want to avoid long-term burnout.
Boarding House Reach feels like a much-needed release of White’s tension valve. While he’s still the best and most charismatic rock musician of his era, sourness has come to define White’s public persona. This album is the most promising sign yet that he can eventually overcome that, leavening his stern “defender of musical values” image with genuine oddball eccentricity. You don’t always have to fight a seven-nation army; occasionally, you can rap at them about living large.
Boarding House Reach is out this 3/23 on Third Man Records. Pre-order it here.