Is rock music dying? Is it already dead? Those questions are difficult to answer definitively, not only because the rock genre has steadily fragmented into endless subgenres throughout its existence, but also because the embrace of derivative and unoriginal ideas that usually signals the decline of an artistic movement has always been somewhat central to rock’s identity. Take the genre’s revered 1960s and ’70s, which saw one single motif — the main riff from Bobby Parker’s 1961 hit, “Watch Your Step” — be transformed into hit songs by The Allman Brothers Band, Deep Purple, bands featuring Jimmy Page (twice) and The Beatles (twice). However, all of those songs have their own musical appeal and avoided lazily ripping off Parker, highlighting the delicate balance between traditionalism and novelty that rock music depends on.
On “Morning, Noon and Night,” the penultimate track of his latest solo album, Fear Of The Dawn, Jack White demonstrates his understanding of that delicate balance between new and old. The song has a rough, experimental edge to it thanks to its unusual drum beat and use of synthesizers, but it also has an outro built off of a familiar riff that sounds an awful lot like Parker’s “Watch Your Step.” It’s a great moment that is representative of Fear Of The Dawn as a whole. While the album features an eclectic mix of harsh guitar and vocal sounds throughout, it’s engagingly built on rock tradition and is at no point unpleasant to listen to. White shows he isn’t just committed to making boundary-pushing rock music: He wants people to actually enjoy listening to it. On Fear Of The Dawn, he accomplishes that goal.
Not all of Jack White’s rock brilliance is hidden in the deeper themes of Fear Of The Dawn. On the surface level, the album is defined by its outstanding variety of great guitar sounds. On the opening track, “Taking Me Back,” White introduces a tinny, overdriven rhythm guitar that fits well with his energized vocal delivery. Stylistically, the song feels like it lies between metal, punk and the garage/blues rock style White pioneered with The White Stripes. This sound serves as a baseline for the album’s style but never feels like a constraint on White’s creativity. On “The White Raven,” White incorporates just about every sound you could possibly make on an electric guitar, from clean fingerpicking to heavily distorted power chords. Likewise, the reprise of “Eosophobia” features a feedback-infused Jimi Hendrix–esque solo above some bluesy organ chords.
Beyond its strengths as a rock album, Fear Of The Dawn distinguishes itself by embracing unconventional sounds and taking risks, even if those risks don’t always pay off. On “Hi-De-Ho,” which features a lengthy Middle Eastern–sounding introduction and a rap verse by Q-Tip, White’s creative vision is fully realized, and his contrasting influences combine for one of the album’s best and most fun tracks. However, on tracks like “Into The Twilight,” White is a little bit too ambitious. The wild mixture of strange vocal harmonies, synths and distorted vocal effects culminates in a song that feels a bit too outlandish, even compared to the other bold tracks on the album. Still, these awkward moments are rare on the album, as White is usually able to reign in his ambitions without compromising his creativity.
In an age of rock music that has led many to question what the genre has left to explore, Jack White’s Fear Of The Dawn is a breath of fresh air that embraces rock conventions but also pushes them as far as they will go. Despite being such an eclectic mix of musical ideas, Fear Of The Dawn is cohesively tied together by White’s passion and commitment to experimentation. Instead of following the formula to modern rock success that he helped to pioneer as a member of The White Stripes, Jack White is instead throwing out the book and making the music he wants to make. Despite his important role in rock’s past, Jack White is focused on a future for rock that listeners can look forward to.
Daily Arts Writer Jack Moeser can be reached at email@example.com.