Jack White seems absolutely determined to break the shackles of indie rock expectation and make a bold statement with his third solo album, Boarding House Reach. His approach this time around is best expressed, albeit ironically, in a Prince-like rap during the track “Ice Station Zebra”, in which he pronounces, “If Joe Blow says, ‘Yo, you paint like Caravaggio,’ you’ll respond, ‘No, that’s an insult, Joe. I live in a vacuum, I ain’t copyin’ no one”. It’s a line which is sure to reignite debate amongst listeners surrounding originality in art. Indeed, one can’t fault him for at least trying to create something new and unique, however many similarities one may intrinsically find in this album.
For all the talk and hype surrounding the unusual nature of this album, it actually starts off fairly conventionally, with one of the most straight-forward and regrettably boring songs of the album in “Connected By Love”. Grandiose piano chords, a lacklustre organ solo and female backing singers do little to redeem the highly predictable tune. “Why Walk a Dog?”, a downtrodden song with little variation comes next, carried by electronic drums, chorus-effected keys and distorted guitar. It again does little to capture the attention or imagination of the listener. However, that all changes with “Corporation”, the longest track here, which does away with the traditional song format entirely, in favour of a percussive, funky riff-based jam led by clavinet and guitar. White’s distorted, talking vocals don’t enter until after the three minute mark. Less than a minute later his thought process has devolved to high pitched squealing. Ultimately, it should be considered a visceral jam; its only semblance of potential meaning perhaps being a thematic precursor to “Everything You’ve Ever Learned” later in the track listing.
“These are my demands,” begins a poetic White in his best Tom Waits impression, appropriately accompanied by violin and piano on “Abulia and Akrasia”. The subtext seems to be that he’s demanding attention for being able to rattle off a list of multi-syllable words, before settling for “another cup of tea”. It’s about as far removed as possible to “Hypermisophoniac”, the most avant-rock and adventurous track so far, prominently featuring an odd, ascending-descending synth loop with beeps and choppy, jazzy piano noodling. It’s well-placed in the track order, providing a nice flow into the aforementioned “Ice Station Zebra”, itself very unconventional and decidedly so, as White stakes a claim for the label of innovator. The main stuttering bass guitar riff calls to mind “At Night In Dreams” by American rock band White Denim before launching into an unrelenting four bars of see-sawing subdominant chords in unison across all instruments. Synth and jazz piano – and later clavinet – drop in and out at various intervals, but this track will be best remembered as White’s foray into rap.
“Over and Over and Over” returns the listener to a more conventional and expected Jack White sound, with a distorted guitar riff prominent in the mix, before “Everything You’ve Ever Learned” slingshots back to the avant-garde. This track provides an overt philosophical nod to the sickening corporate greed and dominance which extends to virtually all aspects of modern life. It’s a beautifully constructed track, equipped with a cheesy commercial voice reminiscent of something one may hear over a loudspeaker in a dystopian film such as Blade Runner or WALL-E, leading into a rollicking percussive rock tune. “Respect Commander” enters with a tapping rhythm recalling “Corporation” from earlier, before resetting at a much faster tempo with ascending guitar lines and orchestral hits. At the 1:42 mark this is swept aside, in favour of a slow jam which feels like it could veer into the territory of Led Zeppelin’s cover of “Dazed and Confused” at any given point.
R.E.M. would have a fair claim to partial songwriting credit for “Ezmerelda Steals the Show” – it may as well have sampled the start of their hit song “Everybody Hurts”, such is the similarity of the repetitive broken chord instrumentation, albeit here with White’s weird, double tracked vocal monologue over the top. Over a haunting synth, White speaks of playing a piano in an abandoned house at the start of “Get In the Mind Shaft”. A lo-fi bossa nova percussion loop permeates the left audio channel, as White now leads the band with a vocoder performance which at times calls to mind the vocal melody from “California Love” by 2Pac.
Given White’s knack for hiding Easter eggs in his records, it would certainly came as no surprise if it was revealed that there is an intentional and symbolic symmetry to Boarding House Reach. In the same way that “Respect Commander” mirrors the rhythm of “Corporation” – and indeed upon closer inspection, “Ezmerelda Steals the Show” mirrors the broken chord instrumentation in the latter stages of “Connected by Love” – “Why Walk a Dog?” seemingly mirrors the penultimate track, “What’s Done is Done”. A country western ballad with sublime vocal harmonisation, it’s arguably one of the finest songs on the album. The album comes to a gentle and elegant close with “Humoresque”, first with a unison vocal and piano melody in a traditional folk style, then transitioning into a Brad Mehldau-esque melancholic piano jazz chord progression to carry us out.
Boarding House Reach is sure to divide opinion. Listeners will be rewarded for approaching this album with an open mind. But regardless of whether or not you’re a longtime Jack White fan, your initial feeling upon completion of this album will be one of befuddlement. It holds moments of promise and of brilliance, a willingness to reinvent and to take risks, all the while clearly having fun. But no doubt, the real question remains: will it get better with repeat listens? And sadly, in this reviewer’s experience, the answer is no.