“This just ain’t no fun; My life has become a bore.”
So Jack White sings on What’s Done is Done, the penultimate track from his third solo album, Boarding House Reach. And while the song is certainly not autobiographical, it’s hard not to find irony in the lyric of an album that reeks so strongly of boredom and a man desperately trying to remain relevant and failing miserably to do so.
Part blues renaissance man, part punk provocateur, White was put upon a pedestal during The White Stripes’ heyday, fairly or not, as a modern day guitar hero and songwriting/producing dynamo. He has succumbed, however, to the same disastrous fate that consumes many who enjoy a reign as a critical and/or commercial darling—over time he began to believe his own hype. And so it is with this new album we witness the culmination of an artist who has spent the past several years slowly climbing up his own ass, and has now decided to camp out there for a while.
Once fiercely analogue, Boarding House Reach finds Jack White embracing digital technology the way a drunken introvert suddenly decides they like karaoke—obnoxious, unrefined, unrestrained, and embarrassingly bad. Playing with electronic gadgets like shiny new toys he doesn’t seem to fully understand, the album is chock full of squeals, squelches, bleeps and boops that might be interesting in the right hands, but therein lies one of Reach‘s main problems: White produced and co-mixed the album, as well as playing all the guitars, drums, organs, and synthesizers, not to mention providing the vocals—there was no one around to offer dissenting opinions about the goings on in the studio. One gets the sense that this is the inevitable fallout of someone spending almost 20 years producing all their own albums (not just the entire White Stripes discography, but also every album by White’s side projects, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather), with no remaining sense of restraint as to what should or shouldn’t make the final cut of an album.
The topic of vocals is another area where a second opinion might have gone a long way. Specifically, someone to talk White out of the ridiculous notion that anyone wanted to hear him deliver a large portion of the album’s vocals in a spoken word, narrative style. For one song, it would be novel; for two, it would border on redundant. Listening to his near-rap delivery on Ice Station Zebra, one begins to wonder ‘Is this a fucking joke?’
Possibly the most infuriating thing about this truly infuriating album is that despite the fact that there are really no good songs, there are flashes where one can almost see what Jack White had in mind for Boarding House Reach, and under different circumstances, it might’ve worked. The best examples of what could’ve been are Why Walk a Dog? and Ice Station Zebra, both having instrumentation I could get behind that were ruined by cornball lyrics and goofy vocal delivery, respectively, and What’s Done is Done, a country duet with Esther Rose which is ruined by electronic musical tones and organ that warble in and out of tune and ruin the haunting melody at the song’s core.
And so it goes with Boarding House Reach: for every good idea Jack White has, he sours it with at least a half dozen shitty ones. Even the most conventional track (and the one that sounds the most like some semblance of the Jack White people know), Over and Over and Over, is a twelve year old track originally written for The White Stripes but never recorded. He almost recorded it with The Raconteurs and again for a potential collaboration with Jay-Z, but for one reason or another it remained on the shelf. Only White would know why he decided to dust it off and throw it on this album. Again, stripped of its eccentricities (terrible mix, unnecessary instruments, fooling with the backing vocals) this could be at least a passable song, if not good. Instead, it’s yet another exercise in hubris that is nearly impossible to enjoy.
There are arguably three to five songs on Boarding House Reach that are filler trying to be passed off as something deeper or more clever—short, spoken word pieces that are really nothing more than contrived musings about nothing. The album’s lone guitar solo is a sloppy mess that will make you forget that in some circles he is considered a guitar hero for the new millennium.
This entire album would’ve been better served to sit on a shelf unreleased until Jack White’s eventual demise, at which point his estate could release it and let fans have a glimpse of what would be referred to as “Jack White’s early electronic phase”, before he worked his way back to the stripped-down music people liked that landed him on a pedestal in the first place. Since the former is obviously impossible, one can only hope for the latter.
Bottom Line: Listening to this album is like someone forcing you to watch them jerk off. Worth listening to one time just to appreciate how truly awful it is.
Listen to the album here: