Jack White does not stop. The musician/actor/label head/designer/astronaut (I’m just assuming on the last one) has kept up a steady pace in the last decade, and nothing, not even the dissolution of his main gig with the White Stripes, can slow him down. Yet for all his output, Blunderbuss, his first solo album, to the extent that it bears his stage name, finds him in a rather safe, reflective mode.
Musically, it’s pretty much what one would expect from White, although it is surprisingly piano-centric. Still, this is the same retro Nashville country/blues heard in glimpses from the Stripes, the Raconteurs and Dead Weather, just a lot less electric. White Stripes made blues sound punk. The Raconteurs emphasized the rock in country rock. Dead Weather was about being sexy. White, as a solo artist, has opted to position himself as a confessional singer/songwriter, or at least, as confessional as someone who spent years pretending his ex-wife was his sister can be.
As sunny and fun as the music gets, the lyrics are all bummers multiplied by sadness. The awesomely catchy duet “Love Interruption” talks about the terrible, violent things White would rather experience than fall in love again. Given his recent divorce from both the White Stripes and his wife Karen Elson (who appears on the record), I guess this is how White processes grief. “Missing Pieces,” “Freedom at 21” and Little Willie John cover “I’m Shakin’” deal with losing control to a woman, or perhaps women in general. It’s hard not to interpret some of the lyrics as being sadly directed at Meg White, the quiet half of the White Stripes whom Jack insisted was the real boss behind the whole operation. “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” and “Sixteen Saltines” seem to miss Meg while begrudgingly envying the more private life she’s settled into: “Who’s jealous of who? / If I get busy then I couldn’t care less what you do / But when I’m by myself, I think of nothing else / Than if a boy just might be getting through and touching you.”
Whether or not you believe Jack’s insistence that Meg ran the White Stripes doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Meg’s drums provided a raw grounding for Jack’s songwriting, a kind of primal editor that could not be reasoned with. Paul McCartney didn’t suddenly stop being a great songwriter when the Beatles broke up, but he did lose someone who could tell him “no” when he wrote songs like “Bogey Music” or “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.” White has yet to find someone who can match him like that, although Alison Mosshart came close. Blunderbuss is a pretty safe record for White at this juncture, and I sense he knows that too. But like he admitted on “Sixteen Saltines,” he can’t stop moving.