This album is infuriatingly compelling; damn it.
Garage-Rock Revivalist and King of the Hipsters Jack White returns with Boarding House Reach, his third solo studio effort and it’s hard to talk about this record. It makes me feel like Schrodinger’s cat, somehow in love with it and utterly frustrated by it.
Of Hemingway’s many stylistic features, his most famous is the extensive use of parataxis, which – aside from being a very fun word to use in a sentence – is a logically tricky technique where, instead of using a conjunction that defines the relationship of two ideas, favors the logical placement side by side of the two words: instead of saying, but, use and.
And it seems Mr. White’s new songwriting style is paratactic, to greater and lesser success.
This album is a glorious mess; Zappa in its essence by way of AWB, Earth, Wind & Fire, and sometimes, White’s own series of malaprops that define the best of his work. There is a chaos and disorder that I love; and I’m not sure why.
Track to track, there is no flow. None of the tracks have any sense of continuity. The downbeat synth gospel “Connected by Love” is followed gracelessly by the meandering “Why Walk a Dog?” and then there is a very distressingly intentional 5 minute jam on “Corporation”. And then there is “Abulia and Akrasia”. Each of these songs is concocted half-heartedly, and exist painfully in the negative space. The funky white boy jam of “Corporation” never quite coheres, with the vintage keys and synths clashing with the guitars, and abruptly changing tone with each vamp on the original musical idea.
And instead of building up, or flowing from one contour to the next, there is a splatter paint aesthetic to the pastiche and stylings. White steals liberally from the sounds of Kid A on “Hypermisophonia”, and then takes a hard left turn into 90’s hip-hop sounds on “Ice Station Zebra”. At no point do these songs feel like they should follow one another.
As we progress through each track – with an interesting drum beat here – a little throwaway vignette here featuring healthy steinbeck sounding big words like some frankenstein abjuration – a thick garage rock fuzz guitar riff, there is no propulsive lift that makes the album become more than itself. The plane is turning down different runways and tracks, increasingly kaleidoscopic; but only ever obscuring, never clarifying.
It feels like something Frank Zappa would have done; and, at times, I feel like I’m re-listening to We’re Only in it For the Money, or Uncle Meat, where the song fragments never really add-up, and it’s on purpose. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that White is secretly listening to The Mollusk on infinite repeat.
And I’m not sure that works. Those records rely heavily on the fact that Zappa and Ween don’t take themselves at all seriously. The humor is from the absurdism of the personalities of
Zappa and the Mothers, as much as the music on the record, which never stabs the serious; never approaches that kind of intent that would convey some kind of point.
Jack White has never affected that kind of persona. He’s always struck me as rather self-serious, even when making a joke. His humor always has a very in-group vibe; the kind of joke told by the kid who is reading Camus to his horn-rimmed wearing, plaid laden, group of friends, all the way in the back corner, laughing at the absurdity of Sisyphus.
And that doesn’t quite gel with what Jack White excels at: tightly written rock music. I’m all for weird jazz, technical prowess, and musical cavalcades of chaos, but it doesn’t feel genuine on this record.
And and and and yet, I can’t stop listening to this record.
Despite the high signal to noise ratio of cognitive dissonance this record induces, White does a lot of things right: the production is damn near flawless, even when the songwriting is oblique and off kilter. His guitar tone still sounds like that sexy-fuzz that I’ve always known: like sugar dipped bacon, gritty, sweet, but still just salty enough for character.
Despite the song’s often going nowhere, with disjointed musical ideas never quite adding up, there are some particular killer cuts on the back half of the record “Over and Over” is pretty great. The instrumentation is often interesting, and the sound immersive.
By the end of it, even though I’m frustrated and dreamlike, I still want to explore the record again; as if re-listening to it will somehow make the confusing thick production into tighter written songs; and the equation will make itself known.
The chaos isn’t controlled; Jack White isn’t Frank Zappa; and this record is a confused mess; and I kind of love it anyway.
Until I don’t think like Caravaggio
If you like this record, check out: Uncle Meat, The Mollusk, We’re Only in it for the Money