[Album Review] Jack White – Boarding House Reach (2018)

Now the dust has settled on Boarding House Reach, the third solo album from Jack White released March 23rd on his Third Man Records label, its time for me to weigh in with what I think. In his latest work, White proves to us he is more than just a blues-revivalist – he’s a talented songwriter who’s unafraid to pull up his sleeves and get his hands dirty experimenting with the distinctive sound he has crafted throughout his career. And it pays off.

It’s a big statement to call Boarding House Reach Jack White’s most ambitious release. The ambition was there when he was pioneering a new breed of blues-inspired garage rock with The White Stripes and was present whilst he explored bluegrass with The Racounters. He even took a view from behind a drum kit with The Dead Weather.

“How dumb would it be for me, with a band of other people, to try to write a minimalistic song that we might have done in the White Stripes?” he asked during an interview with The Times. Long story short: he’s no stranger to experimenting with his music.

And here we find Jack White loosening the shackles of his distinct, distorted blues sound. Sure, there’s blues here – in fact, there’s plenty of it. But along the way we find elements of funk alongside jazz from the Deep South and hip-hop from the North. All the while, White assumes the role of a pastor guiding us through his gospel.

‘Connected By Love’ opens the record with a dreary synth that hangs in the air before suddenly succumbing to a thunderstorm of sound defined by a malicious electric organ. A gospel choir soon compliments White’s chorus of “we’re connected by love” before the organ does battle with an electrifying guitar solo to create an atmospheric stadium anthem.

In ‘Corporation’, White incorporates funk into his music to create perhaps his grooviest track to date – a welcome contrast to the raw, razor sharp blues that have come to define his music. “I’m thinking about starting a corporation,” yells an invigorated White, “whose with me?” The rallying call to the church of Jack White is in full effect.

Elsewhere, ‘Ice Station Zebra’ incorporates a hip-hop inspired composition of bass, drums and keys that would compliment a Beastie Boys track whilst White’s clumsy delivery of the song’s rap (yes, Jack White rapping) would have Beck salivating. ‘What’s Done is Done’ is a great country effort whilst ‘Respect Commander’ builds layers of instrumentation and vocals whilst White’s experimental fiery blues sound is laid bare.

‘Over and Over and Over’ then stands out, amongst the experimental nature of the album, as a return to White’s established style. For me, it’s the strongest track on Boarding House Reach as the distortion is cranked up and the riffs reign heavy with haunting repetition.

All this praise, however, is not to say the album is without its faults. Experimentation does not guarantee quality and there are times where White seems to miss the mark.

‘’Get in the Mind Shaft’ is a disco-inspired effort complete with a voice box. It’s interesting but grows dull and elongated. ‘Abulia and Akrasia’ is a nod to White’s southern influences but its one that you’d naturally skip over whilst ‘Everything You’ve Ever Learned’, albeit a decent track with a unique doomsday bass riff, takes a while to get going.

Then we arrive at ‘Hypermisophoniac’ – a mess of a song. Sometimes, experimenting with sound means that when you strip away the layers of madness, chaos and noise there is a masterpiece hidden beneath – see Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. But when it doesn’t pay off, it’s quite frankly awful sounding. Unfortunately, Jack White is no Captain Beefheart. The stop-start synthesised composition doesn’t cut it for me.

Yet this does not bring White’s songwriting ability into disrepute – ‘Ezmerelda Steals the Show’ and the concluding track ‘Humouesque’ capture everything that made White’s work on Get Behind Me Satan so brilliant and do a great job reigning in the energetic album.

Boarding House Reach is a strong statement from White as he assimilates into somewhat of an Arthur Brown figure – strangely captivating. The unorthodox genius of the music, that utilises everything from conga drums to gospel choirs to synthesisers, is brilliant – not to mention White’s undisputed technical ability with a guitar. This is among White’s best work as he finds his feet exploring a brave new world.

It’s ambitious, it’s different and it’s a solid 8 out of 10.

I got my copy from Vinyl Tap you can too: https://www.vinyltap.co.uk/boarding-house-reach

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