Here’s what happens when Jack White lets his imagination truly run wild: the weirdest album of his career so far. After shaking off the narrow parameters he allowed himself in the White Stripes—songs consisting of three elements, an aesthetic comprising three colors—White has gotten increasingly outlandish with each successive solo LP. He was still finding his way on the first, 2012’s Blunderbuss, but Lazaretto arrived more fully formed in 2014, even if the form was wonderfully florid musical interpretations of a batch of short stories White wrote when he was 19.
Stream Jack White’s New Boarding House Reach Album Here
For all the varied idiosyncrasy of his albums, though, there’s a through line connecting them as White has built on themes he began exploring early in his career: a highly stylized air of overwrought melodrama, guitar sounds that often resembles shriek of power tools or stacked vocals for a huge, choral effect (“There’s No Home for You Here,” from the White Stripes’ Elephant, has plenty in common with “Would You Fight for My Love?” from Lazaretto). Boarding House Reach is the first album White has released that doesn’t sound much like any of its predecessors, apart from the occasional power-tool guitar.
That’s very much by design, as you might imagine from a musician as intentional as White is. Determined to push himself further than ever, he enlisted musicians he had never previously worked with, on instruments he has tended to avoid in his music. That means synthesizers, and lots of them, though they’re mostly deployed in subtle ways. As with most of White’s work, the songs on Boarding House Reach are at once vivid and inscrutable. The first lyric on “Corporation,” for example, is White shouting, “Who’s with me?” over a swaggering funk backbeat, before he even gets around to making his pitch (turns out he wants to start a corporation: “Nowadays, that’s how you get adulation,” he observes, neatly summing up the ethos of this era).
Glitchy “Hypermisophoniac” sounds like a cassette player eating a tape full of bass licks and jazzy piano noodling, and “Ice Station Zebra” features what can only be called rapping, over the Jack White indie-rock version of a boom-bap beat—and he’s actually pretty good at it. After a strange spoken-word intro, and some non-specific fire-and-brimstone ranting, “Everything You’ve Ever Learned” becomes a cacophony of drums and guitar that barrels along without restraint, like a more caffeinated jam from one of the Stooges’ early records. A few songs later, White sings close harmonies with Esther Rose on “What’s Done Is Done,” which has a vintage country-soul feel undercut by a whirring synth that hovers just below the rest of the arrangement.
What makes Boarding House Reach feel as weird as it does is the sheer eclecticism on display, which says more about the way White is usually perceived than about his actual musical output. Though he’s long been considered an eccentric who does things differently than everyone else, he’s been almost rigorously consistent about it over the past 20 years. His latest is his first true departure, and the unfamiliarity is at once a challenge to absorb and also a fascinating turnabout from an artist who is demonstrating that he is more willing—and able—than most to subvert the expectations he’s created for himself.