By Greg Kennelty, April 13, 2018
Front to Back Album Review: Jack White - Boarding House Reach
- Released: March 23, 2018
- Label: Third Man, Columbia, XL
- Producer: Jack White
4.5 Play Buttons
If you've ever seen a Salvador Dali painting, then you know what it's like to be within the bounds of familiarity without explicitly being told what things are. Take a look at The Temptation Of Saint Anthony, for instance. You're aware the leading animal-looking figure is a horse, and behind it are a group of elephants, but they're unlike any horse or elephant you've ever seen. They're caricatures of what you know, blown out of proportion to push the boundaries of artistic expression. Replace the animals with musical genres and you’ve got what Jack White has accomplished with his new album Boarding House Reach.
In a March 2017 interview with The New Yorker, White shared that he wrote the entirety of Boarding House Reach in an apartment in Nashville, Tennessee on a four-track recorder. He added his reasoning for the decision, saying "With computers you can use three hundred and ten tracks if you want to, but it’s too much freedom. I always have my own rules, and I can bend them if I want. I can see the confines I’m working in, but nobody else knows I’m doing it." Born from self-imposed restrictions and a focused writing environment, Boarding House Reach bled from the realms of unreality (or Jack White’s mind – either way, same thing) into our own.
Why Walk A Dog? takes your standard, organ-heavy jazz-meets-blues waltz and flat out disembowels everything you know about the song format. A static blip replaces the bass drum, the snare drum is heavily gated and delayed, and the organ is a wavering keyboard patch that threatens to fall apart at any second. Guitar solo? Sure, but one that’s hyper-distorted and is constantly cutting notes too short. White isn’t stopping there with his fun-house-mirror method of gutting and reassembling genres either. Hypermisophoniac, or the extreme hatred of sound, has the bass parts and vocal harmonies you might find on a Parliament Funkadelic album but they’ve been defiled by technology. The backing vocals are digitally altered to undulate in pitch, the bass is more gritty chunk than anything, and over it all is the constant beeping of what sounds like a keyboard failing to reboot. Insane as it may sound, Hypermisophoniac works wonderfully. You’re very aware of what White is going for – a funky, hooky track that’d be right at home in the mind of Bootsy Collins.
Boarding House Reach isn’t all complete insanity, though. Over And Over And Over is a fuzzy and relatively straightforward rock tune that evokes the spirit of Rage Against The Machine, while Connected By Love wouldn’t have been out of place on Frank Zappa’s 1973 album Over Nite Sensation. White’s ability to blend his usual blues rock sound with his love of experimentation isn’t lost on Boarding House Reach either, and results in songs like What’s Done Is Done. The vocals sound like they belong in a country song but the bleeps and bloops behind them sound like they’ve lost their way en route to the soundtrack of an attraction at EPCOT.
Song to song, Boarding House Reach doesn’t have a ton going on. Each track features White bringing a few sonic elements to the table, his own vocals, and maybe a few additional layers of someone else’s voice, but that’s it. The generally sparse instrumentation is laid out for the listener by way of hard-panning certain elements left or right while leaving the remainder in the middle, creating a pretty tight knit soundstage. White makes this cluster of instruments and vocals each shoot off in different directions, giving the listener a sense that they’re sitting dead center in front of White’s small band as they play their album in his tiny Nashville apartment.
So how should you listen to Boarding House Reach? Simple! Hole up in a completely empty room, get one of those cloud haircuts the person on the album cover is sporting (a cloud hat will also do just fine), and surround yourself with some Dali paintings. We also recommend Zdzisław Beksiński, Kay Sage, and J.R. Slattum, and maybe a Van Gogh for good measure. Then just sit on the floor as the room melts around you and watch the clouds roll by through the hole in the roof.
Listened on KEF EGG and Spotify via Bluetooth.