Before giving this album a listen, I wasn’t familiar with The Whites Stripes, you know other than hearing that bassline (that’s not actually played with a bass guitar) from “Seven Nation Army” in one of those “Popular guitar riffs played in a guitar store” Youtube videos.
So yeah, I jumped into this album rather blindly after I saw Reviewbrah’s video on the album… yup, this one of those rare occasions where I didn’t get recommended an album by the Melon. But according to them, this is a very ‘out-there’ album by Jack White… and I realized it is after I listened through the album, even though I had no exposure to his music before then.
This is a pretty freaky album and the tracklisting is as eclectic as it gets- from spoken word to jam session excerpts to a rap piece to a classical piano piece, this album has almost everything. Driven by prominent percussion and filled with a lot of weird synth-sample placements, vocal editing, high-pitched guitars along with some thick, buzzed ones- instrumentally, this album is one hell of a ride. So let me get on with the track-by-track rundown.
The opening track ‘Connected by Love’ is about someone reaffirming himself and his lover that they have a special bond, that they are connected by love. Jack’s passionate vocals are backed up by a choral interjection by a couple of female voices during the second chorus was what sold the song for me. Then came the organ and guitar solo, the organ laying the foundation of the groove and then a guitar, with an almost camouflaged tone of the organ, comes in to cement it. The percussive feel of the album bleeds into the next track (as it does into almost every other track of the album) with a fuller and omnipresent sound- ‘Why Walk a Dog?’ is a short song that doesn’t take many (or any) sonic detours like the opening track. Here, according to an interview, Jack White comments on the blurred lines between the feeling of ownership and companionship that humans have for pets; and he finds it funny that we have to walk our ‘companions’, something they can do themselves in their natural state.
Now, if I had to pick the best five tracks from the album, I would pick ‘Corporation’, ‘Ice Station Zebra’, ‘Over and Over and Over’, ‘Everything You’ve Ever Learned’ and ‘Respect Commander’. So let me give a rundown of these picks.
‘Corporation’ starts with a jam session driven by a playful layering of at least two different percussion tracks, and two differently toned guitars. This jam session part goes on for a full 3 minutes with a few vocal interjections of ‘Who’s with me?’- it’s like a procession of different instruments sharing the stage, each leading one to another instrument. And the abrasive ‘Woo!’s… wooh boy… that hypes me up. The buzzing guitar builds it up and gives in to another long, ear-ripping ‘Woo!’ and rinse and repeat. Oh and the song is about someone hyping people up because they are going to start a corporation… but it’s all empty hype, because they have no clear goals in mind… except just ‘doing a giant drop’ and taking it ‘right to the top’.
‘Ice Station Zebra’ is the song that warmed me up to this album. It’s so groovy, Jack’s rap-like delivery here fits the shuffling bass and percussion like a pair of gloves. The salon piano and those wispy synths chiming in now and then are also nice touches. The song is stripped down instrumentally in the middle of the song allowing breathing space for the lyrical content of the song. And boy oh boy, Jack unloads quite a rant riddled with references in this song- my favorite bit being:
Here’s an example
If Joe Blow says “Yo, you paint like Caravaggio”
You’ll respond “No, that’s an insult, Joe;
I live in a vacuum, I ain’t coppin’ no one”
Listen up, son
Everyone creating is a member of the family
Passing down genes and ideas in harmony
The players and the cynics might be thinking it’s odd
But if you rewind the tape, we’re all copying god
Copying god, copying god
Copying god, copying god
Add your own piece, but the puzzle is god’s
Here Jack seems to be talking about originality and creativity, commenting that all artists are essentially just rearranging ‘the genes’ of their art. Essentially meaning that all originality is just a derivation from existent ideas- all art is the same. But its all conjecture from my end here- would be interested in hearing out other people’s (I’m sure, much better fleshed out) interpretations.
‘Over and Over and Over’ opens with a buzz guitar riff that plays throughout the song over and over and over… you get the point. Admittedly, lyrically- I have no idea what Jack is on about but I love the tensed energy of the song. The drums also help to maintain that high throughout the song, and again, those backing vocals rock. And of course, the track wouldn’t be complete without that abrasive guitar interlude near the end.
‘Everything You’ve Ever Learned’ opens with an emotionless voice welcoming the listener in a very creepy way and that dissipates with another voice, but this time a passionate one, commencing a spoken word section. The synths disappear and drums take the front seat. The voice tells us to ‘Shut up and learn’ and then disappears again. This one is my favorite spoken word track from the album.
‘Respect Commander’ starts with another jam session with a strong sense of pacing. The percussion, guitar and some synth lead all seem to rile up like a storm is approaching- but only to trick the listener- they break down the pacing, then rebuilds it again and breaks down again. Jack then sings about respecting a commandeering woman, and he likes getting ‘driven by her’- so yeah, kinkiness doesn’t escape from the myriad of themes in this album. Then, of course, an animalistic high-pitched guitar crashes in for a superb solo. The song closes on the same percussive rhythm it started on.
Now onto the spoken word tracks. ‘Abulia and Akrasia’ is a rather humorous bit where C.W. Stoneking dramatically asks for a cup of tea. ‘Ezmerelda Steals the Show’ is another weird, atmospheric track where Jack White, along with another layer of his voice narrates a scene in what he says is a children’s recital with Ezmerelda ending the song saying, ‘You people are totally absurd’.
‘Hypermisophoniac’ goes over-board with that right channel directed synth that sounds like a bubble blowing up and then popping- it really distracts me from the other cool instrumental samples in the song. I know that’s what Jack White was going for, but damn…
This brings me to the last trio of songs that end the album. ‘Get in the Mind Shaft’ starts with a spoken word section that dissolves into a robo-funk groove featuring Jack on a voice changer and he does some interesting detours with his voice samples. ‘What’s Done Is Done’ feature Esther Rose and they sing about a relationship ending, it’s a surprisingly straight-forward track in spite of all the freaky, hybrid tracks a listener will have trudged through by then. ‘Humoresque’ has a pretty interesting history- it was written by Al Capone (a famous American gangster) and Jack won a bid to claim the rights to the lyrics, then Jack found out that the composer was actually Dvorak. This is another straight-forward song featuring a really soothing piano, and it ends with a nice solo where a pattering drum takes the front seat to give a final flourish to the song.
And that ends my individual track-by-track rundown.
Of course, this album won’t impress everybody- in fact, the inconsistency of ideas, the rambly and cryptic songwriting and the experimental instrumentation will make a lot of people turn away from the album. But for me, the fact that this album is all over the place was a charming aspect for me, because it told me that the artist is being sincere with himself and laying himself bare- it gives the album its own dynamic personality. But most importantly, most of the tracks are fun as hell. This will definitely be among my favorites of the year.