Thank the Record Gods for albums that polarize both fans and critics upon their release. In the age of ETEWAF (Everything That Ever Was-Available Forever), art that immediately and distinctly divides the consumer populous is still a thing to be treasured. The dissension and inevitable discourse on social media as well as at record stores, house parties, school cafeterias, company breakrooms etc. between folks holding opposing opinions on new music (or any art really) is among the greatest of treats for pop culture geeks of every stripe. Jack White’s latest full-length album, Boarding House Reach, is most certainly an album that polarizes.
Imagine if you will a long table covered in Rubik’s Cube-sized boxes of every color. Each box on the table represents one of Jack White’s unique talents, traits, tools, or personnel. Maybe one of the cubes represents White’s signature scream, another may represent his oft-used Robert Plant-in-the-middle-of-a-nervous-breakdown vocal style, one cube represents an antiquated organ in his spectacular arsenal of retro gear, this cube over here represents an otherwise esoteric session musician tapped for the sole purpose of contributing something to White’s latest project. There are a lot more cubes on this table, but you get the idea. Okay, so now picture Jack White coming along with a recycling bin and with one fell swoop of his arm raking every cube off the table and into the bin. That bin is Boarding House Reach.
Boarding House Reach is everything but welcoming. “Connected by Love” is a strange choice to begin this or any album with. The gospel-inspired ballad’s old-timey organ and churchy background singers make it feel like it should be the last song on the record. Stranger still is the song that follows, “Why Walk A Dog?” On the surface, this track sounds like a blatant scolding of canine owners, however, we may be overlooking a deeper meaning here, perhaps one about the ugliness of consumerism and planned obsolescence. “Are you their master? Did you buy them at the store? Did they know you were a cure for you to stop being bored?” White croons stingingly. Regardless, it’s a bummer for all involved, but a seemingly intentional one.
By the time the album’s third song is reached, it feels like we as listeners have passed a bizarre patience test and are finally being admitted into the party. With its infectious beats, funky organ, and shouts of, “Who’s with me?” the first three minutes of the excellent five-and-a-half-minute “Corporation” play out like a souped-up version of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” as covered by The Go! Team. “I’m thinking about s-s-starting a corporation,” White sing-speaks in a way that could be interpreted as frightened, angry, insane, or all three. Amidst wild, extended whoops and scattered guitar riffs, White sounds off about building an army and buying up empty lots to make one giant farm. “Corporation” manages to be simultaneously interesting, fun, and rebellious.
C.W. Stoneking provides a sesquipedalian-filled spoken-word piece for the short “Abulia and Akrasia” and comes off sounding like a bookish Redd Foxx amidst mournful strings and piano. The piece seems at first oddly placed but works like an ear-reset for the listener before the wonderfully weird “Hypermisophoniac” arrives. Over weird beeps and warped synths, White’s guitar work here is appropriately distorted and stiff. A jazzy piano plays as Jack repeats lines like, “Ain’t no where to run, when you’re robbing a bank.”
Boarding House Reach’s halfway point is met with “Ice Station Zebra”, which, given lyrics like, “The name of the tune is Cool Hand Luke,” and, “You create your own box, you don’t have to listen,” seem to imply the song’s original title was that of the classic Paul Newman movie. However, the track’s quirky rap moment about copying God, in conjunction with a Public Enemy-like looped siren, seem to suggest naming the idiosyncratic track after eccentric recluse Howard Hughes’ favorite film was the more appropriate choice. The fantastic “Over and Over and Over” is up next and features a stunning lead guitar line and wonderfully exotic background singers. The track is expertly mixed and, without wasting a single second of its exquisite three-and-a-half minutes, manages to give every instrument involved its moment in the spotlight. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself jumping up and down, pumping your fists as White sings, “The wind is blowing, volcanoes blowing, my lungs are blowing, over and over.”
Another ear-reset of sorts is thrown in at the beginning of the album’s final third batch of tracks with “Everything You’ve Ever Learned”. For a full uncomfortable minute over seemingly random bleeps and bloops, Jack repeats the sentence, “Hello, welcome to Everything You’ve Ever Learned, brought to you by…,” then he launches into an angry rant about getting what you want. “Respect Commander” initially features a flawlessly recorded hyperactive rhythm section and Jack’s signature guitar just before he slows everything down to a bluesy groove while singing lyrics about a woman commanding his respect.
“Ezmerelda Steals the Show” is Boarding House Reach’s most blatant critique of a social media obsessed culture. A fractured fairytale orated by White, this gently plucked lullaby includes lines like, “Fools desire distraction, and not take to heart, their faces to their gadgets fall south, ignoring the beauty of a fog on a hill, and a kitten with a mouse in its mouth.” The dreamy “Get in the Mind Shaft” begins with White telling a story about discovering a piano before the song falls into a spectacularly spacey Herbie Hancock-esque groove. The backwoods blues ballad “What’s Done is Done” is the record’s penultimate number and features lovely background vocals by Esther Rose. A cover of Dvořák’s “Humoresque” concludes Boarding House Reach, ending the album on a quaint, optimistic note.
One look at Boarding House Reach’s cover art, featuring a snow-white, Nagle-esque androgyne with a hairdo made of clouds, and you know before you even put this thing on that you’re in for something different. And while there are many immediately infectious and likable moments herein, there are just as many peculiar, unexpected, and challenging ones. With this, his third solo full-length album, Jack White has delivered a work that is at once confrontational and embracing. This record pushes you away as many times as it pulls you in. For the moment, Boarding House Reach may stand as a divisive moment in Jack White’s oeuvre for fans and critics alike. Given time, however, history tends to favor the risktakers.