Aloof, arrogant, hunky, innovative: Jack White has the rock star thing down. Never mind that he's neither a household name nor a chart-topper. On high-voltage LP Blunderbuss, released today, the pale, grim Detroiter shows guts and vision, taking his white-boy-blues on a bawdy Southern road trip. In this day of corporate pop heroes, his idiosyncrasies shine and swagger.
The 36-year-old White (born John Anthony Gillis) is more interested in loner freedom than big fat fame, and that indie stubbornness has limited his commercial viability. Blunderbuss won't be challenging Foo Fighters sales numbers any time soon. But for all the avant-garde U-turns and bite-me disregard in White's music (he wrote all but one of the new tunes), his guttural guitar licks and girl-wary venom almost always pay off.
Listen to swinging haymaker Sixteen Saltines: weird title, curious lyrics but the sort of Zeppelinesque staccato guitar that makes him the 21st century's most daring gunslinger. And even though smiling isn't on his daily to-do list, White has a sly sense of humor: A tall cool woman has him "noivous" on the talkin'-blues cover of Rudy Toombs classic I'm Shakin', which sounds like Wilson Pickett meets Heat Miser, complete with cooing background singers.
White is best known for thumping alt-rock duo the White Stripes and Seven Nation Army, but throughout his career, he's been just as happy sipping sweet tea with country belle Loretta Lynn or trading machine-gun fire with punk star Alison Mosshart, with whom he formed one of his many side projects, the Dead Weather.
On Blunderbuss, White is finally by himself, lording over his own studio, Nashville's Third Man Records. As a result, his myriad wanderlusty interests spill all over: the Doorsian acid-jazz burn of Take Me With You When You Go and On and On and On, the pedal-steely title track, the rolling piano-driven rock a la fellow Motor City star Bob Seger on Weep Themselves to Sleep. There's even Beatles-esque goofery called Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy.
In the 2009 guitar-wonk documentary It Might Get Loud — definitely Netflix worthy, as he does battle with U2's the Edge and Zep's Jimmy Page — White proved that you can make a guitar out of pretty much anything, and it sure sounds like it on the new record. The song Freedom at 21 breaks down into a manic squawking monsoon of warped fretboards. Couple that with White's dramatic, elastic vocal, and the cacophony is comical. Not a great cut, but certainly an unforgettable one.
White has never been one to tip his hand lyrically, but there's plenty of heartbreak here, especially in the wake of his divorce from model-turned-singer Karen Elson, who just happens to record on Third Man Records ("She don't care what kind of wounds she's inflicting on me," White sings). There's also a sign that White hasn't detached himself enough, that he still seeks pure, if unattainable, independence. "The people around me won't let me become what I need to," he sings. White wants to get weirder? Scary thought, but we wouldn't dare miss hearing it.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.