Jack White’s better than this, and he knows it. Having spent the last decade as the leader of The White Stripes, White established himself as one of the premier guitarists of his generation. Following The White Stripes’ breakup last year, he moved on to start his own record company (Third Man Records) and produce an almost comically diverse collection of artists. From Stephen Colbert to Insane Clown Posse, White made clear he has no boundaries. In between production gigs, he found time to mess around in the studio himself, eventually deciding to record his first solo effort. Many wondered how he would fare without Meg (his former wife and White Stripes drummer), despite the fact that he wrote all of The White Stripes’ songs himself. His previous side projects (The Racontuers and The Dead Weather) indicated he would be able to make do regardless of who he worked with, but neither band ever approached the White Stripes’ pure blues-rock bliss. Perhaps Meg forced him to simplify his approach, but he never seemed to fare better with more talented musicians. The same holds true for Blunderbuss, a surprisingly mediocre record for such a bold, enigmatic artist.
While White’s bluesy style is still present, Blunderbuss bears the imprint of the Nashville country scene (home of Third Man Records) more than anything he has recorded, and suffers as a result. White is most comfortable and successful when working within the blues/garage rock paradigm, where he can show off his prodigious guitar skills. Even the White Stripes’ least guitar-centric record (the underrated Get Behind Me Satan) felt exciting and vital due to White’s restless energy. Blunderbuss, on the other hand, is a rather pedestrian effort. Most of the songs are simply good, no more, no less. And while that would be acceptable for most artists, I’ve come to expect better things from Jack White. This is the man who gave us “Seven Nation Army” and “Fell in Love with a Girl,” mere adequacy is no longer acceptable.
The underlying problem with White as a solo artist is that he simply has too many options. Consequently, he tries a little bit of everything, creating a watery mixture of mediocrity. When it comes to arranging a broad array of instruments, White is competent, but he’s no Sufjan Stevens. Rather, he’s at his best when he’s front and center, able to show off his considerable talents. Many have criticized White throughout his career for being a control freak, but the truth is he’s more talented than just about any potential collaborator. And who could argue with the results? From their self-titled debut to Icky Thump (their final record), The White Stripes were one of the most exhilarating bands around. Taking the spotlight off of himself is only a waste of his abilities. For such an idiosyncratic, driven musician, I’m surprised he was excited enough about the material on Blunderbuss to release it.
Jack White will more than likely make music for the rest of his life. Inevitably, there will be missteps, even for someone as talented as him. Bob Dylan himself has a fair amount of duds in his discography, an unfortunate reality of the law of averages. But rest assured, Jack White will be back, hopefully with better material.