Even at the height of the White Stripes’ success, he seemed to possess the strange mixture of enigmatic persona and obsessive focus that often lends itself to such endeavors, so following the band’s official breakup it appeared to be a foregone conclusion that White would eventually set himself free from the self-imposed restraints that he may have already outgrown anyway.
What that conclusion would be was anyone’s guess, and White relished in that uncertainty, choosing to further his image as an inscrutable icon by producing a long list of off-the-wall characters – Conan O’Brien, Insane Clown Posse, Tom Jones, etc. – before finally unveiling ‘Blunderbuss‘, a collection of music that he admitted could only have been presented under his own name.
That statement solidifies itself from the outset, as the initial impression of the record comes from the sharp, almost accusatory tone that burns from piece to piece. It’s a tone fit for a sole narrator, and an undeniably male one at that, given that the angst of those accusations usually center on powerful and vindictive women. These women have no guilt or morals and come from broken homes. They literally sever limbs, leave bruises, and then charge you with assault. They will deflate your life boat, and leave you with a love that slams your fingers in a doorway. And that’s just in the first four songs.
Given the well-documented dissolution of both of his marriages, first to bandmate slash faux-sister Meg White and then again to British model Karen Elson (who actually sings backup on three tracks), it’s easy to frame this confusion and heartache around these real-life hiccups. But White has always viewed the truth both as a slippery slope, and an inconsequential element to the end creative product, so instead the storylines simply provide an added dynamic to what proves to be a multifaceted meditation on disillusionment.
Now for those looking for a more fleshed-out continuation of the White Stripes’ primal electricity, White serves that up and out of the way early on. The second single ‘Sixteen Saltines‘ is a certifiable ripper not far removed from his previous group’s catalogue. The heavy chords, pounding drums and manic falsetto yelps help paint an intimidating portrait of a promiscuous female and the sexual anxiety and unrest that inevitably comes with being involved with her. It’s a stark and simple way to convey a complex emotion and White nails it here, which is important because there is nothing else on the album that sounds anything like it.
To be clear, this isn’t the great guitar hero assertion that many hoped or expected it would be. There are definitely moments; the robotic groove at the end of ‘Take Me With You When You Go‘; the dazzling laser lightshow solo on ‘Freedom At 21‘; all of ‘Sixteen Saltines’ – but in the end these moments are mere placeholders for deeper compositions. There are electric organs, fiddles, mandolins, clarinets, and a whole truckload of old-timey piano lines, giving White free reign to shift easily from the airy acoustics of ‘Love Interruption‘ to the gothic opry waltz that carries ‘I Guess I Should Go To Sleep‘.
Above all else, this is really a vocal-oriented affair, one that White dominates with an assortment of colorful personalities. He unleashes a series of vaudevillian verbal tics on the juke-joint cover of Little Willie John’s ‘I’m Shakin’, and then plays a saloon-door showman with unhinged charisma on ‘Trash Tongue Talker‘, in which he somehow manages to work in a ballsy barroom appropriation of the ‘No More Monkeys Jumping On The Bed’ nursery rhyme.
It should come as no surprise that the bulk of ‘Blunderbuss’ relies on White’s sheer magnetism and his unwavering belief in himself. While the back half of the record often fails to catch up to the sprinting head start of the opening numbers, it is this belief that herds all the different directions together, making them more cohesive with each additional listen.
If anything, White has already secured his spot in rock history by allowing his raw eccentricity to speak for itself, and this outing just confirms that even on its own, that eccentricity still has plenty left to say.