Over the last decade, Jack White has turned each of his bands into an outlet for certain aspects of his musical personality: uber-rocker in the White Stripes, drummer in the Dead Weather, songwriting sidekick in the Raconteurs.
Now he’s finally gotten around to putting out an album with his own name at the top. His solo debut, “Blunderbuss” (Third Man/XL/Columbia), stays clear of his comfort zone: the blues tropes and heavy guitars of the White Stripes and Dead Weather are pretty much missing in action. Instead he favors arrangements with piano, upright bass and a bit of a rural, country flavor provided by fiddles and pedal-steel guitar.
Among the definitions of “blunderbuss” is a gun with a wide muzzle that fires scattershot, and White has never spread himself so wide as a musician, ranging from the wall-rattling guitars of “Sixteen Saltines” to the string-band Vaudeville of “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy.” “Love Interruption” builds its moody atmosphere with Wurlitzer piano and a clarinet, of all things. Songs often flash multiple personalities, shifting tone as if to suggest some latent progressive-rock tendencies: the way the guitar scratches to life midway through and transforms the orchestrated stateliness of “Weep Themselves to Sleep”; the segue from cool-jazz breeziness into frantic rock in “Take Me With You When You Go”; the aptly named “On and On and On,” a road song that unfolds new musical scenery at every turn.
Yet “Blunderbuss” is more than just a hodgepodge of influences. It’s sequenced to play as a journey that is both musical (the way the piano on “Hypocritical” cascades out of the title track) and psychological, a harrowing trip inside a collapsing relationship. Celebrity watchers may be tempted to infer that the lyrics are all about White’s divorce from Karen Elson, but then how to explain that Elson is all over the album as a backing vocalist?
This is less about personal confession than pulse-pounding story-telling. “Blunderbuss” is laced with American-Gothic imagery, splashes of “Pulp Fiction” gore and Old Testament drama. It all starts with Samson and Delilah, the fun couple referenced in White's swaggering cover of Little Willie John’s “I’m Shakin’.” Their tempestuous relationship -- love will bring you down, shear off your hair and chain you down while the walls collapse -- serves as a template for songs that measure a romantic relationship's cost in severed body parts (“Missing Pieces”), impotence (“Love Interruption”) and torture (“Freedom of 21”).
There’s poetry in the mayhem, too. The title track, about a tryst in an opulent hotel, brims with sharply written images of decadence as the narrator makes off with another man’s wife. It’s all too much, and White's narrator finally figures it out; as the album winds down, he slams on the brakes before he loses his mind or his life.
It makes for an entertaining rollercoaster of a listen. One pictures a musician and songwriter not brooding over a failed relationship, but having a ball making an album full of tall tales and uninhibited music.
3.5 stars (out of 4)