Pop music abhors a vacuum. After K. copped for the Big Sleep in 1994, the scene went supernova and collapsed, opening up a black hole that snuffed the uber-hip underground. Goodbye yellow brick road, shit happens. Consequently, Billboard bought the farm. American idols gobbled down American pie and farted out teen spirit. Radio, scared clueless, filled the dead air with the stink of shit — sexless pap, dandruffy disco, syndicated sit-and-spin for twisters and shouters stranded on the dark side of the moon. Baby Spears hopped the rehab fence. Then emo crashed the party and the music died.
It might have gone on a lot longer than it did, that tone-deaf temporal sump — years, maybe decades, of pneumatic smarm and saccharine schtick — but then, just in time for the fin-de-siècle, the White Stripes hit the scene, a punk-rock duo of Jack White on guitar and vocals, and his sister-lover, Meg White, on drums. Remember the first time you heard them? Starting with their eponymous drop in 1999, the Stripes strung together these melodic pearls of perfect pop, one after the ‘nother. Those songs beckoned the jaded and disenfranchised — Nirvana-heads, pubescent pups, Cristgau critics — welcomed us back into the fold, with a fierce, raw, nervy assault of infectious guitar-driven pop rock. White reached down deep into the vaults of three-bar Delta blues and spun that mud anew, refashioned it with grit and wit for the new millennium. Songs about boys and girls making icky thump, waltzes for seven nation armies and little birds. We got behind it.
The Stripes officially disbanded early last year, a bittersweet farewell though hardly a reason for despair; White, frenetically ambitious, cultivates several gardens: Along with Brendan Benson, he fronts an excellent outfit, The Raconteurs; with Kills singer Alison Mosshart, he formed The Dead Weather; produced and played on Loretta Lynn’s 2004 album, Van Lear Rose. Then, last month, White released his first solo record on his Third Man Records label.
Written and produced by White and featuring a slew of guest musicians, Blunderbuss is a jagged, scattershot journey across the subliminal soundscape of White’s inimitable style and indelible substance — a sort of magical mystery tour, with pins poked higgledy-piggledy into the scavenged map of White’s brilliantly idiosyncratic artistry. Employing a stripped down, almost anachronistic sound — you can hear the hiss of analog tape, the breathy whir of the Rhodes piano — Blunderbuss trades the explosive accessibility of the Stripes for a more subdued, sophisticated approach.
The sepia tones and melancholy refrains of songs like “Love Interruption” and “Blunderbuss” evoke an atmosphere that is at once intimate and out-of-time, like staring at old portraits in another family’s photo album. Other songs, like the fantastic “Weep Themselves To Sleep,” veer toward the anthemic before White’s fragile vocals — all urgency and need — ground them in some private hurt.
Blunderbuss might be White’s most personal and challenging album to date, and as such, it’s sure to confuse those fans expecting De Stijl II. They’ll get over it. This one’s a slow burn, but it gives off the warm glow of endurance.
Jack White plays Monday, May 28, at Hult Center; SOLD OUT (but worth dropping money on, if you know what we mean).