Only Jack White Can S(t)ave Rock and Roll from Obscurity
Courtesy Jack White
When an idea shifts from active to passive, that idea needs a caretaker, or else it will disappear into the past. The Vatican is an entire institution that's been established to ensure the survival of Catholicism, which is a certain branch of Christianity that turned stolid and calcified centuries in the past. DC Comics and Marvel Comics stopped being idea-generating factories three decades ago, and now their sole purpose is maintaining their intellectual properties, Superman and Spider-Man most prominent among them, for Hollywood to farm into cash.
Rock and roll made that shift from an active idea into a passive idea a decade or two ago; this is what most people mean when they say that rock and roll is dead. You can smush rock together with some other regional sound for an explosion of novelty—remember Vampire Weekend?—but every major idea behind rock and roll has been dissected and examined to death. When you're dealing with white guys playing electric guitar, all you can do is maneuver around the different parts of the ceremony to make aspects feel slightly fresher, but it's all ultimately a tribute to some idea that's been leached clean of nutrients by previous generations.
Luckily, rock and roll has a fantastic caretaker. But before we get too effusive about Jack White, let's be clear about what he's not. He is not a songwriting genius. His songs are vibrant, deceptively dense with references, and admirably timeless, but he has a limited range. Much of his new album, Blunderbuss, is slowed-down versions of older Jack White collaborations—the central riff of "Freedom at 21" is a minor, Xanaxed-up version of the same simple blues riff White has been playing with since "Stop Breaking Down" on 1999's The White Stripes. And his lyrics are as simplistic as ever, mostly a series of obvious rhymes cascading one into the other, as with the opening of Blunderbuss's "Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy": "Well I get into the game/But it's always the same/I'm the man with the name." The new Bob Dylan, Jack White is not.
But rock doesn't need a new Bob Dylan. Rock already had one Bob Dylan; his name was Bob Dylan. If any musical genre gets something like a new Bob Dylan, it'll be hiphop. What rock and roll needs right now is Jack White. Crawling out of Detroit with the White Stripes, White stripped rock down to its most basic, brattiest components—a riff and a semicompetent beat—and made it into something feisty and groovy and almost new again.
The difference between Jack White and a million other acts that launch themselves, with raucous, chart-topping abandon, into obscurity, is his work ethic. He's got one of those prolific careers that makes you wonder if he's missing some sort of essential sleep gland or something: While recording six incredible albums with his ex-wife as the White Stripes, he also cofounded two more excellent bands, the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather, and then he set about making friends.
White wasn't content just to nail the formula once. After he found success with the garagey blues rock formula, he decided to take the formula apart and see how it worked. He broke into the wax museum of rock royalty and humbly offered himself as a collaborator to what's left of the surviving greats (the Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Dylan). He pushed out at the boundaries of rock with other artists making vital work (Alicia Keys and Beck).
And he went back to the cradle of rock and roll—years ago, he abandoned Detroit for his beloved adopted home of Nashville—to find two of the most unheralded geniuses from the days when rock was fresh and new. The albums he produced for Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson are more than Rick Rubin–style reimaginings of American classics; they're readjustments to a history that was otherwise indelible, knocking Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash down a peg to make room for the women who helped fuse country and rockabilly together into what became rock and roll. (It's interesting that White has made a side career out of polishing the reputations of tarnished musical goddesses, considering that his lyrics are so misogynistic, as pointed out in Jessica Misener's recent essay in the Atlantic, "Jack White's Women Problem." The women, or most commonly "girls," in his lyrics are generally dumb, easily manipulated, or both. This is a topic that cultural critics—or whatever comes after cultural critics—will spend decades parsing once we're all gone.)
After all that, it's shocking that Blunderbuss is White's first solo album. It's not his best work—like almost any rock-and-roll act, White's early, brash songs are his absolute best—but it stands up against his best, acting as a companion piece or a bookend. It's slowed down, rootsier, and more confident. The sounds come from honky-tonks (the jangly "Trash Tongue Talker") and hair metal (the silly, prancing "Sixteen Saltines"). Sometimes, White delivers something more country than rock ("I Guess I Should Go to Sleep") or a song more patient and grandiose than his usual straightforward style ("Weep Themselves to Sleep"). These references to sleep, or to monotony—one song is titled "On and On and On"—don't feel like a mistake; it feels as though White knows he's been entrusted with an important but dull calling—the protective custodian of a sleeping beauty.
Putting all these specimens together into one album, you can see the totality of White's life's work, and it is truly impressive. Blunderbuss is an album that knows where it comes from. White has the scope to understand that Blunderbuss is not providing something new, and he has the singular talent to call on the nuances of a very long tradition. He hasn't invented fire, but he's keeping the flame alive to pass to future generations.