It was always a little difficult to imagine a world without The White Stripes, for me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve considered the bands I listen to, and which ones would fade into the background, and which ones would be remembered. The White Stripes may be one of the few that will live on, because of Jack White’s impeccable guitar work, his characteristic wail, and Meg White’s simplistic, but still marvelous, drumming. I have never heard a White Stripes song that I didn’t immediately know was a White Stripes song. It’s a rare thing to have a sound like that. That sound poured itself into Jack White’s other projects; though they were not as good as any White Stripes record, the music of The Raconteurs and Dead Weather were unique in their own way, helped in part by the flair that Mr. White injects into what he does, be it a collaboration with Conan O’Brien, Wanda Jackson, or Violent Jay and Shaggy 2 Dope. In his world, everything can work.
The worst thing about Jack White’s output, no matter what band he’s in (even if, like here, he’s on his own) is that it will always be compared to, say, White Blood Cells. It’s not something that should be surprising, it should be something that should be embraced, in one way or another. So, what do we have here? The first thing you notice upon turning to Blunderbuss is that there was a strange tension on old White Stripes records. Hearing two people play off of each other is an intense thing. “Missing Pieces” doesn’t feel like that; it feels like if someone opened the windows in the room, letting in the open air of the world outside. This is a good and a bad thing: on one hand, it takes away that unique edge very quickly. On the other hand, it means that White can breathe a little more, and stretch out his legs a lot. “Missing Pieces” throbs along in a way that just feels big, rather than loud. Every note feels like it’s in its right place in one way or another, as if the words and holds were pulled from the air, and placed in some divine order. In other words: it works. And then “Sixteen Saltines” begins, essentially sucker-punching you in the mouth for letting your guard down after the breeziness that came before it. From White’s guitar spews a sludge that serves to disorient the listener, and it only becomes a one-two punch when combined with “Freedom At 21” directly after it.
Of all of the things I could say about White, he knows how to sequence. Blunderbuss knows how to keep its audience wrapped around its finger, never overwhelming or boring. “Love Interruption” comes in exactly at the right spot, felling the most like a De Stijl-era White Stripes track, with the record’s title track feeling like the spiritual companion of “I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart” from Elephant. “I’m Shakin'” may be the most fun track on the record, eve though it sounds like a Black Keys track, even with the ooh-girls bringing out the dirt in White’s voice. These comparisons go on, but the record thrives on the songs that don’t quit sound like his previous work at all: “Hypocritical Kiss,” despite its Whitesque name, is incredibly full-bodied and rolls along with a gorgeous piano line that feels like almost any piano line in any song, but works perfectly in this track. “On And On And On” groans occasionally under the weight of the mid-80s synth-rock tone, but begins to morph and take a different shape as the track goes on, and indeed after repeat listens, and “Trash Tongue Talker” only sounds like he’s the one singing if you really pay attention to his inflections. If these songs were meant to distance Jack White (the artist) from Jack White (the leader of a seminal rock band), then he’s doing a fine job of it, whatever the tone.
If the comparisons are unavoidable, then the question on everyone’s mind is this: where does Blunderbuss rank with his other work? If I were pressed to compare, it would be somewhere slightly below Elephant, which means that it’s right about the third best thing he’s been a part of. But this really does seem unfair, when you really start to think about it. Jack White, for all of my comparing, is a musician who needs no comparison, because his work stands up on its own. Blunderbuss was never meant to be White’s defining work, or even his best. It was meant to be a breath of fresh air, and an incredibly consistent work from an artist who doesn’t need to prove himself to anyone any longer.