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'I hate anything retro," Jack White recently said. Which is, of course, precisely the kind of statement that most infuriates those listeners who are blind to his charms—that this analogue-recording, bowler-hat-wearing vinyl fetishist continues to insist that he's actually doing something new.
It has been more than a dozen years since the release of the first White Stripes album, and music's greatest 21st-century trickster is still managing to get under people's skin. Check the responses to an NPR interview he did at last year's South by Southwest—"Jack White comes across as a self-absorbed twit," says one commenter. "Bland and boring. He's the Ryan Seacrest of rock," says another.
Like any great self-mythologizer, White also knows enough to play up the antagonism. The home page of his website features quotes from two negative reviews, leading with the line "His songs are often little more than de-fanged blues." It's certainly a bit disingenuous from a guy who ultimately remains a critic's darling—his solo debut, Blunderbuss, holds the #11 position in this year's Pazz & Jop poll—but it points out that after all of these years and his staggeringly prolific output, the world still doesn't fully have Jack White pinned down.
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For Blunderbuss, White changed up his game. He assembled a new band; he conjured a largely new, largely keyboard-heavy sound; and he even switched his color scheme to blue, white, and black. The most obvious thing for the first release to come out under the name "Jack White" would have been a Zep-tastic guitar blitzkrieg, which would have satisfied the fan base (though no doubt would also have been attacked for being too predictable). Blunderbuss did give him a few chances to shred, but instead he focused on creating something more nuanced. It was maybe even a bit underwhelming at first, but songs like "Hypocritical Kiss" and "I Guess I Should Go to Sleep" unfolded over time, and there were few moments this year that were lovelier than the electric-piano-and-bass-clarinet riff underpinning "Love Interruption."
White told The New York Times that he thought the central theme of Blunderbuss was death, which is never far away from the surface in the blues that still serves as the foundation for his work. But the more apparent focus was the evolution of his relationship with women—most specifically, the end of his White Stripes partnership with ex-wife Meg, and the end of his marriage to model Karen Elson. White has warned journalists not to take the lyrics too literally, which is fair enough, but at the very least, he's now a 37-year-old father of two, and his sense of sex and romance and heartbreak is undoubtedly in a different place than it used to be.
For at least one writer, this led to some difficult territory. On The Atlantic's website, Jessica Misener wrote a piece titled "Jack White's Women Problem," in which she stated that "his nasty barbs and self-pitying complaints" had come to a head on Blunderbuss, which "crystallizes White's long-standing issues with women." Misener's objections (beyond White's scathing opinion of cell phones) ultimately come down to the singer's overwhelming need for control.
Misener is on to something, but she misses the mark. White's representations of women might not always be pretty, but they're definitely not simplistic. Sometimes he stands dumbfounded by love's power. But he also knows that salvation is not as easy as finding a woman to rescue him. "Spike heels make a hole in a life boat," he offers in one magically perfect image from the stuttery rave-up "Sixteen Saltines."
Indeed, Jack White has issues with control. Like any great pop artist, he knows all too well that image and style and mystery aren't incidental to the success of your work. They're all part of the package, and they all need to be serving your vision, and that demands attention and precision. I wouldn't want to date the guy, and I can't imagine it's easy to work for him. But after more than a decade in the spotlight, he's still flying at a different altitude than his peers—in a world of no style or all style, faux-humility or excessive bombast, he sees the bigger picture.
It's clear that Blunderbuss was important to him. Although he kept up his efforts to extend his Third Man Records business, in 2012 he held off on the side projects and production gigs that filled most of his recent years. His creative monomania made for stunts this year that were inspired (keeping two bands, one male and one female, on the road with him and telling them at breakfast each morning who would be playing that night) and silly (pressing the world's first 3 rpm LP). It could also turn petulant, like an October show at Radio City Music Hall that he cut short with no explanation, confusing and angering a theater full of fans.
Jack White is the most important figure in music today, though, not because of consistency or perfection, but because he's chasing something greater, because he still actually believes that this stuff matters. A few years ago, just before the release of what would turn out to be the final White Stripes record, I sat on a porch in Tennessee with Jack and Meg and discussed his plan of attack. "Everything from your haircut to your clothes to the type of instrument you play to the melody of a song to the rhythm," he said, "they're all tricks to get people to pay attention to the story."