There’s no sidestepping that rock’n’roll – music predicated on self-centered celebrations of personal freedom – looks a little suspect these days in the hands of cisgender white guys, however “woke” they may be. And frankly that’s fitting, given the music’s shameful history of compensating black artists unfairly and an embedded rape culture yet to be fully plumbed in the post-Weinstein #MeToo era. So how does one represent in 2018 as both rock hero and cross-cultural ally? David Byrne, a fair-skinned Scottish-American who’s never put explicit activism at the center of his work, has offered some solid examples lately: tour the world with rainbow-colored band, cover Janelle Monáe’s #BlackLivesMatter anthem “Hell You Talmbout,” take well-meaning criticism to heart on social media, and conduct a despair-countering civic engagement project. But it’s a question every artist ultimately needs to answer for themselves.
Jack White seems to be wrestling with the question on Boarding House Reach – a messy, sprawling, daffy, howling set that sounds spiritually hungry, collectively driven and, instructively, a little bit lost. It’s his strangest record, but per usual, it shows his continued devotion to rock’s dark arts: the tangled cultural roots, “mistake”-enhanced recording traditions, self-righteous fury and fetchingly-deranged megalomania.
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The cover image, a sort of portrait of the artist as young trans person, signals the notion of artistic identity as fluid territory. It’s an obvious nod to rock history (alongside optics, an angle White never sleeps on), to Lou Reed’s Transformer and Bowie and The New York Dolls, and to music’s non-binary nature, coming from a guy who’s made mixed-gender collaborations a rule in virtually all his work. In light of recent soundbites (“I don’t feel male or female,” White told Uncut magazine), it might also suggests spiritual solidarity with the trans community, although one could conceivably accuse him of exploitative co-opting of the same.
Boarding House Reach seems to ponder rock’s racial fluidity, too. Tellingly, it looks less to Jack White’s adopted city of Nashville than to his hometown of Detroit, the industrial giant and Great Migration magnet that shaped Aretha Franklin, George Clinton, and Juan Atkins, alongside the Stooges, the MC5, and Lester Bangs. That’s not to mention the pale-faced rappers who’ve made engagement with black-rooted culture into a sometimes-problematic cottage industries, including Eminem (whose ally-hood includes his pro-Colin Kaepernick, pro-military viral “freestyle” on last year’s BET Hip-Hop Awards) and Kid Rock (who recent liberal-bait includes shilling “GOD GUNS & TRUMP” t-shirts on his website). White mentioned having Motor City heroes Funkadelic in mind on Boarding House Reach, as well as Miles Davis’s seventies jams, and that’s evident in the sound. The LP also takes off from the hip-hop-minded acid funk White forged on 2014’s Lazaretto (the title track, the instrumental single “High Ball Stepper”), with flashes of Paul’s Boutique and golden-era Bomb Squad.
As they do on most “rock” records of note lately, electronics figure prominently, but in surprising ways. The triptych centerpiece of “Hypermisophoniac,” “Ice Station Zebra” and “Over and Over and Over” is a three-fer groove storm with state-of-the-digital art Critter & Guitari synth squalls, heavy metal blast beats, sick guitar excursions, old-school rap flows and jazz piano asides. The raps are striking from a guy whose disinterest in hip-hop is on record, if maybe exaggerated in the public perception, especially for a guy who was collaborating with rappers even before his aborted team-up with Jay-Z. Mostly White sounds like a scrappy, abstract-leaning ’80s-style battle rhymer who probably didn’t win a lot of battles. Elsewhere, experimental detours dead-end: “Everything You’ve Ever Learned” feels like aimless twaddle with newly-unboxed digital toys.
But at its best, the spirit of freaky free-play is thrilling and
refreshing, a worthy end unto itself, especially given the caliber of players
(MVP drummers Carla Azar and Louis Cato, multi-instrumentalists DJ Harrison and
Neal Evans). Like nearly all of White’s work, it manages to feel fresh,
original, and still deeply rooted in history. On “Ice Station Zebra,”
named for the 1968 spy film starring a queer white matinee idol (Rock Hudson)
and a black football hero (Jim Brown), White rhymes “yo” and “Caravaggio”
to sermonize about how creative influence and musical exchange take place. “Everyone
creating is a member of the family/Passing down genes and ideas in harmony/The
players and the cynics might be thinking its odd/ But if you rewind the tape we’re
all copying god,” he flows. Self-serving perhaps, and maybe explicitly at
odds with his recent dis of DJ Khaled for copying Santana’s “Maria Maria” on “Wild
Thoughts.” But philosophical consistency is one thing, art’s another, and
within the closed-circuit of a song, White makes a case for cosmic unity as
logical and true to the groovy Detroit we’re-all-in-this-mess-together
tradition as anything on Funkadelic’s Cosmic Slop. Power to him.