On the excellent single “Love Interruption,” Jack White sings, “I want love to roll me over slowly/Stick a knife inside me/And twist it all around.” Ask and ye shall receive, Jack. By the end of Blunderbuss, the guy has knives sticking out of his heart like peacock feathers, yet he’s hungry for more punishment. Blunderbuss is his first solo album; it’s also his most expansive and masterful record since the White Stripes‘ 2003 classic, Elephant, full of brilliant songs about how love tears your body and soul to shreds, slams your fingers in the door, grinds your face in the dirt.
Until now, White has always preferred to slip into the guise of a band, with other musicians as props for the movie he’s making in his head. That can mean the one-of-the-boys camaraderie of the Raconteurs, but this mama-loving Catholic boy’s favorite trick is turning women into rock goddesses: Meg White, Alison Mosshart, Alicia Keys, even Loretta Lynn. White knows how to make women feel like stars, whether it’s the ladies in his bands, the ones he sings his tortured love songs to, or the ones in the audience.
But on Blunderbuss, the star is him, with a mostly female gang of musicians. The Nashville cats here are real ballers, with Autolux’s Carla Azar on drums behind Brooke Waggoner’s churchy piano, Olivia Jean’s guitar, Bryn Davies’ upright bass and Ghana-born singer Ruby Amanfu. And to add to the overall mind-freak effect, the backup chorus on some of these love-ravaged songs includes his ex-wife Karen Elson, less than a year after the couple celebrated their sixth wedding anniversary by throwing themselves a raging divorce party.
White’s cohorts on Blunderbuss have the muscle to bring all his wildest musical ideas to life. There’s one vintage R&B cover, the 1960 Little Willie John classic “I’m Shakin’.” The other songs are all over the map, from the ace hippie funk of “Trash Tongue Talker” to the country soul of “Blunderbuss.” “Missing Pieces”and “Take Me With You When You Go” come on like hairy British prog-folk, complete with archaic time signatures; it makes you wonder if White has been studying Traffic circa John Barleycorn Must Die.
There are plenty of made-in-Nashville flourishes – fiddle, mandolin, pedal steel. White mostly strums acoustic, occasionally going electric for noise-splutter solos. But he power-riffs the Seventies stoner boogie “Sixteen Saltines,” his loudest and funniest tribute to the destructive force of passion and the healing power of overcranked guitars. “Spike heels make a hole in a lifeboat” – that could be White’s epitaph.
Yet through all the heartbreak, he remains a mystery man, as if Don Draper went to that Rolling Stones show on Mad Men and ended up jamming with the band. White has the Midwest con-man reserve of Draper, along with the flamboyant-yet-unknowable flash of Jagger. So Blunderbuss gets stranger and more fascinating the closer you listen. It doesn’t give up any of the man’s secrets. And make no mistake: That’s exactly how Jack White wants it.
Listen to “Love Interruption”: