Is Jack White The Willy Wonka Of Rock? We Review The New Album Track-by-track

19 March 2018 | 1:35 pm | Bryget Chrisfield

We take you through the full LP.

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Since the mysterious clip titled "Servings and Portions from my Boarding House Reach" landed on 12 December last year (directed by none other than Jack White III), we’ve been watching it Over & Over & Over (that’s the title of the second single from White’s third solo record, geddit?). And even though it sounds like turning the radio dial surfing frequencies, the teaser piqued our interest. We were reminded how much we totally ache for White’s striking blue-and-black colour palette (with flashes of chrome and bursts of colour throughout this clip). Some believed the words that flashed up onscreen - such as Abulia, Papillon, Vache, Real Hands, Kale (plus some upside down words we’re not quite geeky enough to try and figure out) – were titles of songs from Boarding House Reach, but we can confirm that is not the case.

We’ve always considered Jack White to be a separated-at-birth contender for Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka and this collection of songs is as phantasmagorical as Roald Dahl's fictional character.

1. connected by love

The first taste of new Jack White material, the album’s lead single dropped on 10 January and those opening bass booms really do call to mind Muse’s most recent single, Dig Down.

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When you’ve already seen a song’s accompanying music video, it’s virtually impossible for it not to play in over in your mind every time you hear the song afterwards. The Connected By Love clip is a collage of scenes featuring seemingly unrelated people in different environments: a woman on her death bed, a group of angry youths kicking the shit out of someone, brothers/twins doing their mum’s head in before stumbling upon a dead deer. And then there’s White himself, inside a room in a house somewhere remote. He beats his chest emphatically while trying to convince himself that humans are inherently good, “’Cause I know!/We’re connected by love,” as the gospel BVs emphasise, “We’re connected/We’re connected”. The circle of life (via death), loss of innocence, interplanetary shifts – hang on, they’re all “connected”! Love is all there is, people.

After a whirling instrumental dervish, there’s a glorious, bare-bones piano breakdown. “Don’t forsake me, woman!/And go and choose somebody else,” (as IF, Jack). Yep, this is punch the air, preacher-man stuff and by the time the organ comes in we’re speaking in tongues.

2. why walk a dog

Opening track two, a lumbering drum pattern calls to mind a dog being dragged along on a lead against its will. White asks all the important questions, such as, “Why does a dog need to be walked?” - except that he over-enunciates the word: dawg. White can definitely be a funny fucker as well: “These cats seem to blow everyone’s mind/But mine.” Indeed the bassline evokes a slinky cat stalking and then sneaking up on a bird. There’s a guitar solo that sounds like the guts are being wrenched out of this instrument and amps crackle under the pressure. Occasional organ stabs intensify to become a main melody and this instrument is already a recurring Boarding House Reach motif. Why Walk A Dog proves what we’ve always suspected: White really is Dr Seuss for grown-ups.

3. corporation

This one sounds like it belongs on The Get Down soundtrack. A skittish beat with hi-hats, an organ melody mimics the guitar riff, insistent egg shakers, drum demolition - “WHO’S WITH ME?” WE ALL are. Already. Corporation changes tack just after the two-minute mark with demented bongos and sounds that fly from one earbud to the other (we almost duck at one point). “I’m thinkin’ about starting a corporation!/Who’s with me?” Then in come White’s piercing squeals, like a toddler protesting while being dragged towards the bath. It’s a freeform instrumental jam. Then White and his travelling band of gypsies march right out the door and off down the street, fading into the distance.

4. Abulia And Akrasia

Dramatic violin evokes a fortune teller gazing into her crystal ball. “These are my demands...” - hold up, we know that voice! It’s the inimitable CW Stoneking! And his storytelling prowess is undeniable. As is Stoneking’s ability to take us waaaaay back to a land that time forgot. Enter words we need to look up in the Thesaurus such as “abjuration”, “repudiate”, “abdicate” - wouldn’t wanna challenge this character to a game Scrabble! A tambourine shimmers to heighten suspense and honky-tonk piano comes straight from a saloon in Westworld. There’s a cute twist to the tale that we’re not prepared to spoil for ya. And we reckon Stoneking’s kids must get the best bedtime stories ever! He has a bright future in talking books if this music thing doesn’t work out.

5. Hypermisophoniac

What are those crackling sounds? A super-fast typing speed? Then thumps suggest Godzilla’s traversing a nearby town. Hypermisophoniac sounds like a malfunctioning arcade game, but piano stabs introduce an organic element. Enter thrashing guitar. “Ain’t nowhere to run/When you’re robbing a bank.” Aha! Maybe those sounds at the start are note-counting machines!? We reckon this one would be a great soundtrack for a robot escaping a facility only to run outta battery life.

6. ice station zebra

These song titles, though! This chugging slice of hi-hat-heavy wonderment with insistent piano chords and trippy organ (or is it that theremin?) would perfectly soundtrack a Looney Tunes cartoon. Then enter White in full flight on a spoken-word rant: “You create your own box you don’t HAVE to listen.” This track particularly is best appreciated through headphones.

Wow, the drumming on this album is next-level! And for this we have three drummers to thank: Daru Jones (Nas, Talib Kweli), Carla Azar (Autolux, Depeche Mode) and Louis Cato (Beyoncé, Q-Tip) – we salute you.

At one point the drum pattern is sparse in this song, then things turn cacophonous before it all stops on a dime. In the middle of Ice Station Zebra, there’s a breather during which we can take stock of our thoughts. Then more dialogue (“Come on over you can lick the stamp, son”) with funky keys to boot. “The name of the toon is Cold Hand Luke, ‘cause/I got stripes on my pants and boots” – White’s lyrics are absolutely nuts! Fast riffage then silence.

7. over & over & over

This one’s a more standard rock’n’roll number with killer heavy guitar riffs, loose “WOO!”s and frantic drumming. The rowdy-group backing vocals are quirky, almost The B-52’s-esque. “My shoulder holds the weight of the world.” Pitch-shifted BVs. We just wanna bust out and head-bang along to this track Over & Over & Over. “The rock’n’roller/The young and older/Going back to the stroller.” Guitar screeches underscore actual unhinged human squeals. Many different instruments take turns playing the same five-count main melody. Guitars beg for mercy in White’s hands and then bongos take over, like a galloping heartbeat. “And though you all want me/The gods have all scorned me, now."

8. everything you've ever learned

“HELLO! Welcome to. Everything You’ve Ever Learned.” There’s Gameboy bleeps and we feel like The Wizard Of Oz is speaking to us from behind a dodgy curtain (pay no attention to that man behind the curtain). Then the system malfunctions and it all goes wonky before bongos that sound like a horse bolting hijack this song’s arrangement. White enters the spectrum in full preacher-man mode again. “Do you wanna question everything?/Then think of a good question!” Those hi-hat-heavy drums return and bongos bring the loco. We feel like Marlon Brando’s Apocalypse Now character when he was losing the plot! Organ gives this track a religious feel and then White shouts before petering out, “SHUT UP AND LEEeeeeaaaaaaaarrrrrn”.

9. respect commander

Also released on 10 Jan, this is the B-side to Connected By Love and, as such, didn’t land with an accompanying film clip. Are they experimenting with trying to accelerate into the fastest beat possible? I can’t even type at that tempo! This track sounds like a chase scene in the Mission Impossible franchise and we’re tipping White would choose to do his own stunts. The dynamic variety demonstrated in Respect Commander and its constantly shifting tempos build suspense alongside the scattered, excitable “Whoop!”s. Tambourine shimmers like a rattlesnake. “She commands my respect/And I can’t recollect/A better time in my life... And I cannot protect/My heart from her command.” That guitar work! Prince would approve wholeheartedly. Then it all fades out.

10. Ezmerelda Steals The Show

Gentle strumming, which actually calls to mind REM’s Everybody Hurts, and an endless keys drone underscore layered voices. Spoken-word - reverberant, overlapping voices - sometimes sounds like a poem, other times like a script or stage directions: “Ignoring the beauty of fog on a hill, and a kitten with a mouse in its mouth.”

“You can hear a bootlace...” – what would that sound like? “You people are totally absurd.” Ezmerelda Steals The Show sure is “totally absurd”, but it’s also absolute genius.

11. Get In The Mining Shaft

Synths sound like an old sci-fi movie soundtrack (or Stranger Things?) with what seems to be White recounting the first time he ever encountered an old piano “in an abandoned house” and getting hooked after hitting several notes together at the same time.

This album could very well be White’s ode to the piano. Guitars are present, of course - White choosing to play a brand new Wolfgang Special and 5150 amp from Eddie Van Halen's signature brand on the record - but it’s a remarkably keys-driven set of songs.

Enter spacey keys, AutoTuned wah-wahs and a casual, strutting drum pattern. Celestial choirs are like an aural epiphany.

12. What’s Done Is Done

This gently swinging duet - White singing alongside a simultaneous female voice - sounds playful, instrumentally, but the lyrics bring a sinister twist. “What’s done is done/I just can’t fight it no more/So I’m walking downtown to the store/And I’m buying a gun.” Enter an organ solo that takes us straight to church. Amen. Directly after What’s Done Is Done track finishes, White says, “Either you go or I go.” Then a female voice whispers, “Then it won’t be me.”

13. Humoresque

You’ll immediately recognise Antonin Dvorak’s Humoresque melody if you’ve ever taken a piano lesson in your life (or listened to your mate practising). White’s voice echoes the notes in Dvorak’s piano cycle, “You thrill and fill this heart of mine/With gladness like a soothing symphony.”

In a recent Rolling Stone interview, White revealed he purchased a musical manuscript that reworks Humoresque, which was written by Al Capone while he was imprisoned in Alcatraz in the 1920s. The fact that a gangster could pen such beautiful words moved White, he says.

Boarding House Reach thus concludes like a jazzy lullaby, or “a soothing symphony” according to this song’s lyrics.