As you might have noticed, I’ve been a little bit stumped as to where to begin with this blog, and didn’t know what my first review should be. I was planning to do a best of 2017 countdown sort of thing, but as I have been without internet the past couple of weeks I didn’t have time to write it before the end of the year. I still plan on doing it though, so it may well be the next post. Today, January 10th, marks two years since David Bowie passed away. This event affected me, and everyone, heavily, and so I vowed that this year I would celebrate Bowie on his birthday, rather than his anniversary. I would be tempted to do a retrospective on Blackstar, but when I heard that the new single from Jack White was dropping today, I realised that it would be far more positive to take a look at something I knew would make me happy. My love for Bowie is surpassed only by my love for Jack White (the two tend to alternate the position of my favourite artist), and there is no artist in the world I know more about than Jack White. So, White’s new single ‘Connected By Love’, is the first review on this site.
The name Jack White will be familiar to most of you I’m sure; the creative mind behind the White Stripes, the Dead Weather, the Raconteurs, Third Man Records; a leader in the blues rock revival of the 2000’s and the vinyl revival of the 2010’s, White has dipped his finger into a lot of pies. The music is always held together by the idea that too much creative freedom cheapens the product, and art is always more truthful when it is spontaneous and limited. This, however, has not stopped White from expanding his repertoire to collaborate with a myriad of artists, from Loretta Lynn to Beyoncé; from A Tribe Called Quest to Insane Clown Posse. 2014’s Lazaretto saw him delve further into American roots music, as well as a flirtation with hip-hop in ‘That Black Bat Licorice’.
White’s new album: Boarding House Reach, seems to hint at something of a rebirth for the artist who has evolved dramatically already from the days of red, black and white with Meg. It is his first recorded in New York City and Los Angeles: at Sear Sound and Capitol Studios (as well as his own Third Man Studios in Nashville), and we also see a host of new faces and musicians, as Lillie Mae leaves home to pursue her own solo career, and we remember the tragic loss of Ikey Owens in 2014. Here we have, among others, Beyoncé and Q-Tip’s drummer Louis Cato, the GOASTT’s Charlotte Kemp Muhl on the bass, and even David Byrne’s conga player Bobby Allende. The initial teaser for the album: ‘Servings and Portions from my Boarding House Reach’ gave us a glimpse into the Boarding House, and it was frenetic, dizzying and electric. We all knew that something new was coming from the man some call music’s Willy Wonka (personally I think he is the heir to Captain Beefheart). Electronic beats and fragments of rapped verse were intertwined with the screeching guitars we know and love from White. Synthesizers leaped to the fore, just as they do with ‘Connected By Love’. After announcements of festival dates and the cryptic message CONNECTED BY LOVE from TMR, we heard that the new single would arrive on 10th January. Which brings us to today.
‘Connected By Love’ opens with a synth bass wobble, an implied 3/4 time signature and ballad-like vocals from White. White sings the opening lines, which would be pretty accompanied by a piano, to a drum machine beat and synth bass line. The song promises triumph and drama, and it delivers. The drums enter, and White sings the refrain. Familiar pianos carry the harmony, and exit, providing the synths with breathing space as the second verse begins. The drums develop as the emotion intensifies, and White’s voice is joined by a chorus of backing vocals, building up until, with a whoop, we are launched into the organ solo. This solo already makes this song feel like a classic, as does the ensuing guitar solo. Without an ounce of self indulgence, White reminds us of who he is and where he has come from. Seconds later, the synth bass returns and White reminds us of where he is going.
With the air of a true bluesman versus the world, the song is reduced to White and his guitar: What have I done?/I have pushed away everyone/Help me forget/Let’s put it all to bed/Forgive me and save me from myself/Don’t forsake me woman, and go and choose somebody else. The spiritual dimension has always been present in White’s work; he was brought up a Catholic, and nearly became a priest. The video for this single implies that the song is directed at the Virgin Mary. The song ends with wild synth arpeggios that abruptly cease, as the song, which burns triumphantly like a phoenix with each listen, is extinguished.
What ‘Connected By Love’ has in beauty and majesty, its B-side: ‘Respect Commander’ has in grit and attitude. A blues song shrouded in electronic robes, it’s schizophrenic nature promises it to be one of the great songs White will play live. A drum machine opens it, and a display of the musicians’ prowess on guitar, bass and synth result in the building up to a climax, of 80’s style synth stabs and guitars which flicker like a mosquito in your ear. An organ takes over, calming the sea of sound as the riff enters subtly and quietly through the back door after a synth screams like a banshee, signalling the arrival of the master. A classic guitar riff, which would not be out of place on a Dead Weather record is greeted with whooping synths, which at first seem out of place, but muscle their way into the melody, providing support to the guitar fills. The song doesn’t stay quiet long, and as White’s vocals increase in intensity, so do the echoing and pulsating synthesizers. While the lyrics of this song might not be White’s most poetic or profound, they certainly act as emotional intensifiers and are delivered with such style and power that they drive the song head-on into a collision with guitar solo which could have come right out of Elephant. White’s unmistakable guitar playing greets the listener like an old friend while simultaneously violently lacerating them.
As the solo breathes its last, the drum machine returns, as if to say that nothing has really changed in the past four minutes, and you are a fool for thinking otherwise. It, along with the sliding and viscous guitar, swaggers off into the realm of inaudiblity, leaving the listener without closure on a song which you didn’t realise had begun. ‘Respect Commander’ is exactly that: White manages to convey the emotions he is describing to the listener through sound and does so, quite rightly, without apology.
The sleeve design of White’s singles mean that they are all part of the same image, all threads in the same tapestry. Jack White is still unmistakably recognisable in ‘Connected By Love’: he achieves the apex of songwriting while telling us the message singers have been attempting for centuries. However, he is also reinvented. I am always reluctant to over-analyse a song before I have heard the entire album, but if Boarding House Reach provides us with even further evolution on the part of Jack White, just as the design on the sleeve of this 7″ provides a new dimension to the image and reminds us that there are things beyond what we can see, then I am looking forward to meeting the new Jack White. He has already assimilated Bob Dylan, Don van Vliet and Plato into his person, let’s see who he adds next.