Jack White and Copying God

Chris Wheeler

Jack White has made a name for himself as both rock and roll’s agitator and its conscience. Wielding a heavy respect for historic styles and analog recording methods, White has often been accused of being slavish regarding restrictions. The White Stripes, his first band, featured a stripped-down style, minimalist arrangements, and an exclusively tri-color palette. He insists that deadlines, boxes, and good old-fashioned hard work are essential to the creative process. His own hard work—three bands, 14 albums, and one recording label later—seems to have borne this out.

Now, on Boarding House Reach, the 42-year-old seems to be compromising.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, White stated: "This album is the culmination of, like, 'I don't care.' I want it to sound like this. I don't care how it was made." Up until recently, White’s equipment consisted of vintage recording consoles and 8-track tape decks; he primarily chose old instruments to make it harder to achieve the sound he wanted. Not anymore. Boarding House Reach, White’s third solo album, was edited using Pro Tools and features signature guitars from St. Vincent and Van Halen.

This new approach doesn’t mean that he has abandoned all of his boxes. The primary restriction for Boarding House Reach was to write the songs in his head before he recorded them. Apparently Jack White’s head is full of a lot of sounds we’ve never heard before, because this album is free-wheeling, sprawling, and in some places totally bonkers. Critics could be excused for thinking it is unfocused, but White sounds like he’s having fun trying out all the other colors in the crayon box beyond red, white, and black.

The album is difficult to pin down, like White himself. He covers an incredible array of stylistic ground, from the R&B and gospel tones of “Connected By Love” to klezmer violin in “Abulia and Akrasia” to the folk blues of “What’s Done Is Done.” Of course, White’s garage rock roots can be found scattered throughout the album, especially in “Over and Over and Over,” a song with a hook a la Rage Against the Machine and the rapid-fire delivery of White’s own “Lazaretto.” Spoken word shows up in “Ezmerelda Steals the Show” and “Abulia and Akrasia.” If there’s one style that appears most consistently, it’s funk. White’s collaborators on this album are session artists who typically back up major R&B and hip-hop artists; their skill shines in the freeform “Corporation” and “Get in the Mind Shaft,” to name a few.

Another groove that takes its cues from funk, “Ice Station Zebra,” is central to the album both in location and mindset. Here, White takes a moment to lay out his thoughts on the creative process. The independent streak, as always, stands strong:

“I'm never gonna go where you want me to go, 'cause
I got feelings that you just don't know and you can
Listen up if you want to hear

And if you can't stand it, then [scream track] right here.”

White sounds like he’s having fun trying out all the other colors in the crayon box beyond red, white, and black.

Jack White’s message in Boarding House Reach is the same as it’s always been: he will continue to do what he feels is best regardless of what you think, because he doesn’t care what you think. He’s listening to the music inside of him. White has stated in multiple interviews that this album was a result of releasing the songs he was hearing in his head to be themselves instead of letting his ego get in the way.

Curiously, this idea is similar to Madeleine L’Engle’s description of the artist of faith as someone who walks in the path of Jesus’ mother, Mary: “I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius, or something very small, comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.’ And the artist either says, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord,’ and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses; but the obedient response is not necessarily a conscious one, and not everyone has the humble, courageous obedience of Mary.”

The faithful artist, then, attempts to be a catalyst for art, to make art that is subject to Christ for the glory of God. Jack White may have admirable things to say about work ethic, boundaries, and the creative process, and he continues to expand our sonic landscape in new and exciting ways. However, at the end of the day Jack White is subject only to Jack White, and made for his own glory.

Or is he? On much of Boarding House Reach, White would have us believe that he fits into no box but his own. Yet there is one box that he can’t seem to escape, hinted at in “Ice Station Zebra”:

“Everyone creating is a member of the family
Passing down genes and ideas in harmony
The players and the cynics might be thinking it's odd
But if you rewind the tape, we're all copying God...

Add your own piece, but the puzzle is God's.”

Topics: Music