It’s been 15 years since “Seven Nation Army” (2003) infected the ears of every radio and football stadium in the world, yet Jack White has remained relevant as one of the most peculiar figures in rock. He’s now on his third crack at a solo album since the White Stripes parted ways, and it’s his most experimental effort yet.
“Boarding House Reach” (2018) takes you on a lot of roads during its 44-minute playthrough, none of which have much relation to his previous solo records “Blunderbuss” (2012) and “Lazaretto” (2014). It’s an even further cry from any of the work he did with the White Stripes in the 2000s, making it a worthy listen for anyone who hasn’t been paying much attention to White in the last few years.
The album starts with the synth-filled, groovy and full “Connected By Love,” the first of many examples of White’s departure from his sounds of the early 2010s. It’s also the first of many examples of the fundamental issue with the record: It sounds like it has a lot more to say than it actually does. The opening track has all the right pieces to make a killer statement, but it just seems to be missing the bounce to make it memorable.
Make no mistake though, this album does have some killer cuts. White’s incorporation and fusion of new musical elements and influences comes through in a hodge-podge of screams, time signature changes, new instruments, synths and disorganized lyricism. As mixed as that sounds, it comes together as a cohesive unit. Combined with White’s classic guitar shredding, tracks like “Corporation” and “Over and Over and Over” shine bright.
Perhaps his best attempt at the atmosphere he tries to create with “Boarding House Reach” is in the song “Hypermisophoniac,” which is as crazy and unsettling as its title sounds. The concept is based around little noises that trigger big annoyances to the ear — the track begins with the sound of a fidget cube being rattled. By the end of the track, White has created a sound that’s unnerving yet infectious.
If that same execution were present throughout the album, it’d be a masterpiece. But unfortunately, White’s experiment left a few duds. “Ice Station Zebra” is some sort of Beastie Boys-esque rap rock tune that proves that White should never, ever try to spit bars ever again. “Why Walk a Dog?” comes up well short both sonically and lyrically, combining with “Connected By Love” to be a weak starting point.
All in all, White does do an impressive job of maintaining this unsettling aesthetic that can jump to anything at any moment. And it sure does jump wherever it wants to. Whether it’s just long, distorted electric guitar solos or spoken word verses behind an acoustic guitar, White doesn’t leave many stones unturned.
He finishes off the album with a couple of bluegrass and folk-inspired tracks, which fit well with his theme of “we’re going to do everything and try to make it blend together.” “What’s Done is Done” goes over well enough, with a synth/organ solo making it worth its place in the tracklisting. The final track, “Humoresque,” is actually a pretty soft and sweet ending to the madness that was “Boarding House Reach.”
White covers a lot of bases in this album. Most listeners are probably going to find something they can take away from this project, but most listeners probably won’t leave thinking this album was amazing front-to-back. It’s an interesting transition for White, but his shift in sound left too many songs that just don’t catch the ear well.
This shouldn’t be an album to ignore, though. “Boarding House Reach,” while not perfect in its own right, is an honest experiment that could be a sign of interesting things to come from White. Sure, he’ll get a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Album, and he’ll sell a bunch of special edition “Boarding House Reach” vinyl like always, but this is a story to watch. This album was a good effort, but what comes next will be even more compelling.