Jack White has never been an easy guy to predict. Back in his early days with The White Stripes, he practically made an art out of throwing people for a loop. This has held true ever since, whether he’s deliberately surprising people, by spinning rumors about himself for fun — like the idea that ex-bandmate Meg White was his sister — or simply showcasing his usual, bizarre personality.
This strange eccentricity comes out in full color on Boarding House Reach, White’s first album since 2014’s Lazaretto. He was working with a brand new group of session musicians when he went to record the songs, which he’d written by himself in an apartment in Nashville. This was apparently meant as another in a long line of White’s experiments, such as trying out recording with ancient equipment for American Epic or alternating between an all-female and an all-male backing band during the tour for Blunderbuss.
The result is exactly as weird and varied as you would expect — which, in a way, gives us a bit of a paradox. On Boarding House Reach, White brings back a lot of the crackling guitars, establishment-bashing and raw voltage that has made his work stand out on previous albums like Lazaretto. That being said, the question isn’t whether Boarding House Reach is doing anything new — the question is whether that newness is amounting to anything substantive.
On first listen, the album comes across as a characteristic mishmash of genres, both across the span of its 13 tracks and on a more micro scale. “Humoresque” is a reworking of some old sheet music of Antonín Dvořák, and the delightfully punchy “Over and Over and Over” is a leftover discard from White Stripes years. Beyond that, White falls back on his old appreciations for rock and alternative blues, but also makes use of funk and even something akin to rap. The latter occurs on perhaps the weirdest track of the album, “Ice Station Zebra.” Maneuvering between hushed drums and twangy funk, the song as a whole can best be described as what a transmission from aliens might sound like, if the aliens were reading a very strained poem as a way of saying their first hello to planet Earth.
The album explores sonic and especially vocal territory, from the blaring demands of “Corporation” to the brief, weirdly polemic narration of “Abulia and Akrasia.” Then there’s “Ezmerelda Steals the Show,” a brief, oddly tender recitation that loses a lot of its meaning with the pretentious final line, “You people are totally absurd.” Viewed as separate, individual entities, these songs don’t seem to carry a great deal of meaning, at least not that can be easily discerned. However, strung together into a complete picture — well, that’s the thing, strung together, they still don’t.
Boarding House Reach as a whole fits together convincingly but confusingly, blending the lore-laced poetry of folk with bare-bones garage rock, electric guitars, inspired funk and starved vocals. There are songs with a more classic feel, like the pleasantly tragic “What’s Done is Done,” as well as some that are more moody and dark, like “Why Walk a Dog?” with lines like, “These cats seem to blow everyone’s minds but mine.” And he makes a point of, yes, shafting our minds in the synthy, existential trip, “Get in the Mind Shaft.” White is imitating and absorbing several different styles and genres, but embodying none of them completely, which is part of what makes the music so interesting. It’s uncategorizable.
But it has never been Jack White’s M.O. to spoon-feed us his exact intent, or even to deliberately engineer meaning for all of his songs to begin with. One thing that can be said definitively about this album is that, even if it is at times performative, it speaks to a consistent truth about Jack White: He will never lower his own standards. He’s desperate for quality, for appreciation, for newness. As always, he sounds almost like he’s starving for something — whether that’s love, peace, absolution in the face of technology or simply the next rung up on a long creative ladder. Creativity, after all, is what White does best. Boarding House Reach is just that, a reach; you can’t say that it completely achieves what it’s aiming for, but it does manage at least to appear to explore some new heights. It doesn’t accomplish its goal with the same elegant verve of White’s previous solo endeavors, but it is creative and exploratory, and nothing personifies Jack White more than that.