Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The White Album

There are many cities in the world which serve as shorthand for what seems to preoccupy their incumbents. With Paris, I'm told, it is love. In Glasgow it is drinking and fighting and in Las Vegas, gambling and sin.

Nashville, by similar token, is country music. You can’t escape it. Drive down Broadway and it twangs out of every honky-tonk bar lining the mile-long drag. As the self-styled “Capital of Country” Nashville represents a certain brand of American conservatism, held together by the values of country music which are still preached each week from the hallowed radio pulpit of The Grand Ole Opry.

You might say that the only thing Jack White has in common with the capital of Tennessee is his surname, which covers the dominant ethnicity of those who patronise those honky-tonk bars - blondes squeezed into stonewashed denim, men almost uniformly sporting untucked shirts, jeans, tennis shoes and baseball caps.

It may be atypical eccentricity, then, that White now resides in Nashville himself, given that for 15 years the 36-year-old has been confounding those unable to work out whether he is just a brilliantly post-modern blues journeyman or the living amalgam of every character Tim Burton has made Johnny Depp play.

It's not that White is bizarre. Just...strange. The "coolest, weirdest, savviest rock star of our time", the New York Times recently headlined, and in that you have an incontestable description. When they first came together in 1997, The White Stripes were an all-senses assault on convention: a guitarist with a vibrato voice pitched barely an octave lower than Tiny Tim's, accompanied by just a drummer who may have been his sister or may have been his ex-wife or...no one even now seems to know. And were they blues, or some form of alt-rock? No one ever did reach that conclusion, either.

Deep within the shag pile of White's musical foundation was his Detroit upbringing - one of 10 children in a Catholic family of Polish/Scottish/Canadian origin living in a Mexican district. Somewhere in that mix he was turned on to authentic bluesmen like Son House and Robert Johnson which he later interpreted idiosyncratically in the Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather and the numerous other side projects that seem to spring up without warning.

So, yes, "idiosyncratic". Probably the best word to describe Jack White. Even when he and British model Karen Elson divorced the couple threw a party to both celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary and mark the "making and breaking of the sacred union of marriage." Elson remains on the roster of White's Third Man Records label, part of his studio, production and retail empire set up in Nashville.

It is in the studio of Third Man Records that the Prince of Paleness has also produced his first solo album, Blunderbuss. It is by far the closest White has come to convention, but that doesn't mean it's a sellout. Far from it. It's just that White has welcomed accessibility. Or, at least, his version of it.

Blunderbuss is certainly a gentler White, to a degree. Missing Pieces eases awake the record with a gorgeously floaty Fender-Rhodes electric piano, although this soon proves a false dawn for a track about self-dismemberment. 

There is certainly something of The South, too, about the album, with a lap-steel and battered upright church hall piano tinkling up the title track, and adding to the ageing, All The Young Dudes-feel of Hypocritical Kiss.

And if this is supposed to be his divorce record, you'd struggle to look for the catharsis. For starters, his ex- herself sings on several tracks (an option Marvin Gaye passed on with ...There My Dear), such as Love Interuption (which sounds like an unlikely duet between Robert Plant and Dolly Parton) and it flits briskly between the familiar White Stripes staccato of Sixteen Saltines to the theatrical, Who-like Weep Themselves To Sleep, stopping off at a playful cover of Little Willie John's I'm Shakin'.

The voice of Plant comes back again on Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy and the dreamy On And On. It's here that you begin to wonder whether White has simply found a route back to where Led Zeppellin left off. It's not that appearing with Jimmy Page in the musos' dream documentary It Might Get Loud must have rubbed off on White, but in trying to understand what it is that gets him out of bed in the morning to pick up a guitar, it's clear that the same strain of blues that carried the Zepp through their career is alive and well in White's own musical genetics.

It would be wrong to get stuck on such comparisons. This is a Jack White album that happens to enjoy a shared heritage, but you have to wait until the final track, Take Me With You When You Go, to fully realise this point. Split into two, it's first half is a pleasant quicktime, all square-dancing violins and more of that church piano, before it breaks into classic White treated guitar and a mad appropriation of an Andrews Sisters chorus.

Blunderbuss may not be as confounding as some of White's earlier canon, but it doesn't suffer as some might expect such apparent normalcy would cause. It's a grown-up album by a musician who revels, quietly, in being pop's outsider, Edward Guitarhands if you will - the strange boy who traded one great musical metropolis for another one. And a splendid record it is too.

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