Two of our writers sit down and discuss Boarding House Reach, a daring new project from veteran rocker Jack White.
It all started when two of our writers got in a bit of a spat on the Slack in regards to the new Jack White album Boarding House Reach. Both fans of his music, Brian praised the albums daringness while Rob condemned it for self-indulgence and meaninglessness. We figured it’d be pretty fun to watch them argue about it, and after some egging on we decided to share it with all of you…
This album is a chaotic smorgasbord of an artist in the midst of redefining his sound, and for that alone, I think it’s a great project. Jack White has, in a lot of ways, subverted expectations with this record. Whether it’s the instrumental choice, the genre inspirations, or his unhinged vocal delivery, there is a morsel of inspiration within each of these songs. As a holistic statement, the album is greater than the sum of its parts and is filled to the brim with a sense of discovery that is infectious to me. You never know what’s about to happen!
I think for the most part that’s true. It is for sure… surprising… but not in the way Jack White has always been surprising/absurd/insane. Still, Blunderbuss and Lazaretto were surprising because they were exciting. That power guitar in “Sixteen Saltines” or the bouncy piano of “Alone In My Home” show more growth, and more artistry than Boarding House.
Blunderbuss was about finding himself alone, Lazaretto, about him growing as an artist. But Boarding House is sort of about nothing? It’s like a bad take on a Bob Dylan album, a faux protest album that tries too hard to be something that it never achieves.
I think that “sort of about nothing” approach is wonderful. I see it as Jack White fully leaning into his absurdist streak. He even references Sisyphus on “Over and Over and Over,” which, apart from the lyrics, has this awesome Jack White fuzz guitar. And that sense of discovery I mentioned is evident in the musicality of the record. “Hypermisophoniac” has this insane, ascending synth that sounds like a Tron bike failing to start up—it’s intriguing and perfectly fits the bar room piano ditty that accompanies it.
“Over and Over and Over” was the only song that really jumped out at me on the record—it’s fun, pretty classic Jack White, and the guitar riff is pretty stellar. I think the gothic gospel choir is cool, but he sort of hides behind it. Also the bongos? I was l.o.s.t at that point. That and “Hyermisophoniac” are solid bases for songs, but they both grow into something that reminds me more of messing around with garageband in high school rather than this massively produced album from a (sort of self proclaimed) rock god.
It’s pairings like this which make the album a trip to listen to. “Everything You’ve Ever Learned” utilizes the bongos well, a frantic rhythm to match his wild spoken word protestations.
The album is like you’re on a weird ride that you’re not sure is going to end well, but once you get off the ride and look at the whole roller coaster from a distance, you start to see just how lucky you were to get off the ride alive.
And since Boarding House Reach comes from one of the most acclaimed and idiosyncratic musicians today, that ride is exhilarating, if not a bit haphazard.
If we’re comparing…the best part of a ride is the split second before you drop, eyes to the sky, you can’t see what’s in front of you, and your stomach jumps into your chest. Artists who can leave you in that limbo make you think, make you work for it. Boarding House seems to lay it all out. Aside from the overproduction, it’s too obvious, and that makes it an absolute slog.
The first three songs “Connected By Love” “Why Walk a Dog” and “Corporation” spell it all out for you. You’re always told as a writer, musician etc., not to underestimate your audience, and I feel like that’s all White does on this album. Even “What’s Done is Done” seems like an apology for the whole damn thing.
I’ll give you the overproduction. I think some songs are marred by the indulgence in their buildups. “Corporation” could have done without the first three minutes. But once it kicks in I can almost forgive the bloat… almost.
“Why Walk A Dog” seems to be a spiritual successor to “Instinct Blues,” and I agree it isn’t as great of a song. But what makes the song enjoyable is the overblown distortion of the lumbering guitar solo that just oozes blues. And it’s little moments like that that made the album exhilarating. Songs like “Get in the Mind Shaft” are absolutely kooky but they show that Jack can put his flavor on the “electric church” sound.
Kanye West did something similar with The Life Of Pablo, where he kind of splattered everything on a wall to see what sticks. That sort of became the point of Pablo itself. I see a similar exercise going on with BHR, but in a sense, White is being even more risky with genre and stepping out of his comfort zone.
Comparing it to TLOP (a not quite Yeezus genius but very good album) is super misguided. TLOP is challenging to listen to, but rewarding. BHR is challenging to listen to because it tries to be difficult without substance. It’s like someone giving you the punchline to a joke before telling it, sure you might recognize how funny the joke is but are you going to get a good laugh out of it? Probably not.
At the end of the day, BHR serves as a transition period between White’s garage-rock throne and what seems to be a more electric future. Does the record stumble on its own over-indulgence? Yes. Does it wander? Absolutely. But it’s Jack White’s reckless abandon that makes this record exciting and imbues it with a wild sense of discovery, both for the listener and the artist. If not lyrically satisfying, the sonic risks are executed in a way that rewards the listener with a smattering of sounds and musical ideas that keep the listener on their toes, while still offering some tastes of past works. Frantic maximalism is the name of the game, and for that alone, I think Boarding House Reach succeeds.