“I don’t ask myself for nothing anymore/My peace is freedom from the masses,” Jack White declares on Entering Heaven Alive, his second new record of the year. As statements of purpose go, this one is hardly breaking news: Over the last two-plus decades, especially since the dissolution of the White Stripes, White has been seemingly unconcerned with maintaining any particular brand. Tinkering with his persona, sound, instrument of choice, and hair dye on a regular basis, he’s become blues-kid Jack, Clockwork Orange-droog Jack, just-a-guy-in-a-band Jack, just-a-drummer-in-a-band Jack, and Rock Edward Scissorhands Jack.
The records that have accompanied each of these makeovers have been equally varied, if exasperating. His post-Stripes catalog has amounted to a series of visits to a carnival funhouse, with White as the slightly weird and sometimes creepy guide leading us into different sonic rooms. Just a few months ago, Fear of the Dawn felt like a collection of sound effects with a beat, with White even attempting a Chuck D. imitation for a minute.
If Fear of the Dawn had a law-abiding next-door neighbor, it would be Entering Heaven Alive, which presents us with his latest and perhaps inevitable variation: earnest, unplugged Jack. Much like Taylor Swift with her Folklore and Evermore double-header, the album is submerged in subdued watercolors, his voice framed by gently picked guitars, cellos, and other serious-art ornamentation. If you count his Acoustic Recordings 1998–2016 package of demos and acoustic tracks, it isn’t the first time he’s wandered into this terrain, but Entering Heaven Alive is his most deliberate attempt at art-pop. It’s easy to imagine White playing these songs on MTV’s recently revived Unplugged series, supported by a small, tasteful backup combo and plenty of candles.
In keeping with its to-the-bone feel, the songs have the confessional quality of any rando, long-haired singer-songwriter record of rock past. For someone who’s cultivated an air of mystique and aloofness, White seems willing to grapple with ghosts of the past and engage in what sound like recorded therapy sessions. In “Please God, Don’t Tell Anyone” he practically begs the Lord not to let his father know of “the ways I’ve been sinning/Ever since the beginning/He won’t understand.” On “If I Die Tomorrow,” which muses on his own early death, he asks for help with taking care of his mother (“with the many things she needs from time to time and day to day”). Other songs like “Love Is Selfish,” have a White-on-the-couch feel: “I’m on a train, but I cannot rest upon it/I’m on a train but it won’t stay on the rails.”
The album was recorded last year, before his recent onstage marriage to Black Belles guitarist and singer Olivia Jean. Whether they were inspired by her or not, other songs find White mulling over his need for love and devotion. In “Help Me Along,” he confesses he’ll “travel to the ends of the earth” for his loved one, and he revels in a shared sense of blissed-out naughtiness in “Queen of the Bees”: “Let’s take a stroll to the end of the street/Put your hand in my pocket so the neighbors can see.”
Per the standard rulebook of pop, sentiments like that usually call for fussy, super-delicate accompaniment, and White doesn’t disagree. Entering Heaven Alive is flush with surprisingly nimble and fluid melodies that remind you of what a song craftsman he can be when he’s not overcooking his music. And some of those tracks—”If I Die Tomorrow” and “A Tree on Fire From Within”—are among the most arresting and least self-conscious songs he’s made in years. They’re pared down but, with their tactful use of various unplugged instruments (sometimes all played by White himself), they manage to be low key yet dramatic and wintry. Given how songs like these could have sounded in other, more conventional hands, the cringe factor is exceedingly low.
Which points to the main hook of Entering Heaven Alive: thankfully for him (and us), White can’t be normal even when he wants to be. In its low-key way, it’s as eccentric and trippy as almost anything he’s done. “All Along the Way” starts all sensitive and fingerpicky before building into the sonic equivalent of a stroll in a spooky forest. With its mashup of wah-wah guitar, cocktail piano, and the lightest of funk grooves, his voice sometimes mimicking the sound of the guitars, “I’ve Got You Surrounded (With My Love)” manners to be intimate and disturbing at the same time. The descending violin line that opens “Help Me Along” prepares you for an Americana lament, but it soon turns into something as close to a pop tune—or vintage sitcom theme song—as he’ll ever come.
Naturally, White still can’t help but go overboard. The surrealistic “A Madman from Manhattan” is a meandering portrait of a dude “with a man’s hate and a floor mat made of satin,” and the angel who “comes to him and sings,” and it’s as maddening as it sounds. Throughout the record, he occasionally lets his voice slips into the tone of a taunting Tolkien elf, never his best look.
At moments like those, you can already feel him shape-shifting into the next variation of Jack White. Is he sincere or is this just another persona? That question haunts the album. But for now, Entering Heaven Alive presents him as a flesh-and-blood creature, chewing over his past and future before a full moon transforms him in a different kind of beast.