This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Genre: Blues Rock, Experimental Rock
Favorite Tracks: “Ice Station Zebra,” “Over and Over and Over,” “Get in the Mind Shaft,” “What’s Done is Done”
The easiest way I can think of to describe the set of feelings that Jack White’s BOARDING HOUSE REACH invoked in me was to recall a memory from several years ago about my father. My dad is a guitarist (it’s not his “job,” even though he is certainly talented and hard-working enough to be a pro) and his main project during most of my high school years was a country-rock band that featured him, some friends, and a singer that he had met through a friend who had some professional aspirations. They played a few original songs, but a lot of it was standard bar-band fare, your “Sweet Home Alabama’s” and what not. I would occasionally sit in on the drums and had written one or two of their original songs, so I suppose I had a tiny bit of “creative input,” which is probably what led to my well-intentioned, otherwise very cool and very talented dad asking me how he could incorporate “dubstep” into his band’s music. It’s the kind of question that demands an answer along the lines of, “I suppose you could if you wanted to, but why would you want to?”
Why does Jack White want to do so many of the things that he does on BOARDING HOUSE REACH? Some of it makes sense, but honestly, most of the weird attempts at trend-chasing on this album are just utterly baffling, and something that I had previously assumed that Jack White, in being consistent with his brand as a musician, would be above and against. Did he just get bored? That’s not impossible, given that he cut his teeth on music that was rudimentary by design and his tendency to jump between musical projects quickly. It’s far from unheard of for musicians to struggle with their transition into prestige acts, which it’s pretty fair to say Jack White is at this point, but most of BOARDING HOUSE REACH takes it to truly uncomfortable levels.
So what kind of shenanigans does Jack get into on this record? There’s an adventurous foray into—maybe—ASMR on “Hypermisophoniac.” He gets into light anti-corporate satire on “Corporation” and hints at light BDSM on “Respect Commander.” And the thing is that a lot of this record is pretty listenable—particularly the would-be Jay-Z feature “Ice Station Zebra,” which, despite some putting the eyebrow-raising label of “the Jack White rapping song” on it, doesn’t sound too far off from a more rhythmic version of late period White Stripes. “Over and Over and Over” has a nice bit of punk swagger that sounds far, far more confident than the rest of the album, enough to give a listener motivation to finish the rest of the record. “What’s Done Is Done” has a nice mix of influences from across the Jack White canon, from the mighty VAN LEAR ROSE to his more straightforward early work.
To sum up the biggest issue that BOARDING HOUSE REACH has: for every genuinely interesting and engaging moment that White has come across in his musical journey, there’s one that’s equally uninteresting and almost cliched, as if a 13-year-old had come up with it. “Corporation” and “Everything You’ve Ever Learned” did absolutely nothing to convince me that Jack White has something to contribute to the kinds of larger conversations he seems to want to be a part of, and it’s those kinds of mediocre takes that are painful reminders that Jack White is a man in his 40s who doesn’t seem very in touch with what’s going on around him. In his past work, he’s hinted at his desperation for interpersonal connection, and that desperation leads to some really, really special work, but White is wandering into either desperation to be known as something more than he’s capable of being or into desperation to be liked, and neither is a good look on him.
I definitely don’t want to make it sound like Jack White should shut up and play the hits or try to sound the exact same for the rest of his career. BLUNDERBUSS and LAZARETTO were pretty great records that reached into genre territories that were, at least for audiences, new for Jack White, all while showing he was capable of making great music even while expanding his array of instruments, genres, and general musical weapons. And he is only 42 years old—he could be making music for another 40 years for all we know. But he’s capable of more than this, and BOARDING HOUSE REACH reeks of a lack of restraint on his part. For the love of God, Jack White should keep pushing and experimenting and pushing his sound as far as it can go, but experimentation for the sake of experimentation doesn’t make compelling art. Just like dubstep and a country-leaning bar band, some things just don’t need to go together, and unfortunately, the bright spots of BOARDING HOUSE REACH just do not outweigh all of those unnecessary and unsuccessful dalliances.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend