Like the antiquated weapon of its title, Blunderbuss blows a hole in ho-hum mainstream rock.
The man pulling the trigger, Jack White, is no stranger to shaking up the status quo. Scarcely a decade ago, his stripped-down, guitar-and-drums duo the White Stripes took bubblegum pop's legs out from under it, ushering in a wave of lo-fi, ragged rock acts to dominate the discussion.
In the intervening years, the fiercely idiosyncratic White has shifted from one collaborative effort to another (the Raconteurs, the Dead Weather, the Third Man record label) before ending the White Stripes for good early last year.
Long reluctant to release a solo album, the 36-year-old White abruptly changed his mind and quickly cut the tracks for Blunderbuss at his Third Man Studio in Nashville (serving as songwriter, producer and engineer). The album features a hand-picked roster of musicians, including drummer Daru Jones and backing vocalist Ruby Amanfu.
The results are, predictably, a bit scattered. Much of Blunderbuss has an unshakable gloominess, and the music rambles all over the map, giving these 13 tracks an overwhelming whiff of vintage White Stripes. It's not difficult to see this as the logical successor to 2007's Icky Thump and 2005's Get Behind Me Satan, but here White frees himself up to play around with fiddle, pedal steel, organ, piano and bass, adding welcome textures to the often-blistering guitar work found throughout Blunderbuss.
Apart from Rudolph Toombs' I'm Shakin' (which finds White affecting an endearing Jersey accent: "I'm noivous/Yeah, you got me shakin' and jumpin'"), White wrote every track. And he seems lyrically preoccupied with grim imagery and visions of romance as a bloody contact sport. "I want love to/Grab my fingers gently/Slam them in a doorway/And put my face into the ground," croons White on lead single Love Interruption.
Given the raw-nerved, almost confessional nature of these songs, which rarely stray from matters of the heart, it's tempting (and a little reductive) to consider Blunderbuss Jack White's personal Blood on the Tracks, an album made in the wake of a painful divorce. (White split with his second wife, British model Karen Elson, last summer.) Blunderbuss is as eccentric and single-minded as its creator, and White delights in making it extraordinarily difficult to discern ulterior motives beyond the music. Is it possible someone so private and particular decided to seek solace from recent turmoil in the last place anyone would expect -- the spotlight?
Whatever the ultimate goal, Blunderbuss is a welcome, weird blast of rock 'n' roll, loaded with fierce guitar work and indelible songs, underscoring the empty clips of his mainstream contemporaries.