ALBUM: Acoustic Recordings 1998 – 2016
ARTIST: Jack White
Album release date: September 9, 2016
The Pearly-Skinned Preacher
It might surprise you to learn that the legendary musician who looks like the love-child of Edward Scissorhands and Uncle Wiggly cites the Holy Ghost as the source of his creative thought and output.
Jack White was born and raised in what he describes as the cynical city of Detroit. He grew up in a Catholic household, served as an altarboy at Holy Redeemer parish, and for a long while considered the priesthood to be his calling in life. Upon being accepted to seminary, however, he realized that he wasn’t giving “one thousand percent” of his energy and devotion to God, and figured that entering seminary without his heart being fully invested in it would be dishonest. It was the music he had been immersing himself in from a young age – the Doors, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles – that was his keenest inspiration, consuming his mind and inspiring his movements, and which he ultimately dedicated his life to instead.
Retrospectively, however, White says that he sees a connection between his creative performances on stage – which are grounded, he insists, in a desire to connect meaningfully with others, or to shed some light onto a given situation – and the salvific bend of a priest’s ministry and vocation: “[Y]ears later I started to realize that this was what I was doing on stage – that calling I felt to priesthood comes through somehow, that urge to preach from the hip. It’s the [same] power of the Holy Ghost involved in them, helping them connect with other people. I think that’s what I’m trying to do in some sense. Priests feel that they have a calling… I have a calling, too.. Sometimes I look at [this career] and think I want nothing more to do with it, at all: but it forces me to continue, it’s a calling, I don’t have the control.” The musician adheres to the concept that the most genuine acts of creative energy occur when we most closely imitate creation ex nihilo: “Only God can really do that. But songs can get close to it.”
An Attempt at Truth and Beauty
White’s theology has departed from the Catholic orthodoxy of his youth – religion prevents true connection with God, he thinks, and he’s hesitant to call God a person: “dark-energy” is the phrase of choice instead. But do any amount of research on the man and you’ll discover a complex, bewildering individual who doesn’t buy the ease of Occam’s razor, nor the boutique relativism and consumerism brought on by the recent tsunami of technology: an individual who in fact devotes himself to peeling away the crippling abscesses caused by the biting wind of the zeitgeist in an effort to bring about an encounter with beauty. “I don’t see beauty in a bunch of teenagers all sitting next to each other texting, not speaking face-to-face. I don’t see beauty in the way that pop music is all recorded on a computer and autotuned in that plastic way… And I guess I just do my best to defeat those ideas and present something that’s an attempt at getting at truth and beauty,” he says.
If any of this surprises you, believe me: it surprised me, too. Taken as a whole, the music that I’ve heard from Jack White has been, well, confusing: some of it is brilliant, some of it kitchy, some of it angry, dark, and sinister; and some is so honky-tonk linear it’s tough to sit the whole way through. Through the years White himself has been seen to be a decidedly unusual persona – part of his branding seems to be an enthusiasm for idiosyncracy, expressed in weird ways that waver between benevolent and malevolent, and this has added to my own suspension of opinion regarding him and his authenticity (or lack thereof). His marriage to Meg White (who’s last name he took as his own in a quirky reversal of tradition) was always shrouded in questions – partly because Meg could never really even play the drums (he said he wanted to maintain the “childlike” quality of her playing), and partly because he always referred to her as his sister. They dressed only in red, white, or black during their years as The White Stripes: Jack White seems fond of chromatic color schemes, as further evidenced by the yellow-and-black-only color scheme for an upholstery business he founded and ran on his own in the days before his music career took off. I could unearth countless such curious facts, but the bottom line is simply that Jack White has always stood out as a creative, intense, unsettling man who seems to fly just above or beneath categorization.
But for all that, even a casual listener like me can recognize and appreciate the impact Jack White and his bands have made on the face of music. A remarkable guitar player, White has been actively pursuing music since 1996. His band, the aforementioned The White Stripes, is widely credited as playing a key role in the garage-rock-grunge revival of the early 2000s. He’s won many awards and his records fly off the shelves, embraced by critics and fans alike. He’s worked with Loretta Lyn, Alicia Keys, and countless others; his music has been featured in over five motion pictures.
To put it simply, the man has an impressive career behind him, and continues to maintain his status as one of the “truly original” musicians on the scene today.
An Indescribable Flavor, Eighteen Years in the Making
But what is it that makes something ‘truly original’, anyway? Is it the fact that White chooses to record with analog equipment, or that he’s a believer in single-takes, or that he looks like a vampire and talks like a philosopher? I’d stood at the edge of the Jack White shores for a long while without ever dipping a toe in, so this week I decided to acclimate myself by listening closely to his latest release, Acoustic Recordings 1998 – 2016. I figured it would be a good overview of his work throughout these past 18 years, and that perhaps it would be soothing (due to the word ‘acoustic’) and therefore enjoyable to listen to.
I wasn’t exactly right about either part of that equation: Acoustic Recordings reveals a many-layered career scored with heavy-handed experimentation (some good, some not), but it’s hardly a gestalt; and while it has a few gentler tunes on it, for the most part it’s a rather raucous, haphazard assortment that ricochets through numerous genres, eras, and production styles. It gives the listener a taste of Jack White, to be sure: but the taste remains inscrutable and irresolute.
The first part of the album unfolds like an homage to the early rock movement: much of White’s music was and is rooted in the blues, with open-tunings and a chiaruscuro tendency to start soft and light and progress into darker, more aggressive shades. A handful of tunes – You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket, Never Far Away, City Lights, and We Are Going to Be Friends – remain calmer, with the flare of bluegrass here and there, or a particularly anguished vocal delivery from White. City Lights is an especially beautiful example of White’s acoustic guitar chops, as well as his songwriting: “Every move suspends an action; any attempt to engage will push away. What you want becomes a magnet, opposing poles, never meeting. Can you combine a friend and mother? Can you blend a dad and brother? Must we have to pick one or the other? Will we know this or always wonder? (Always wonder.)” In between phrases, White plucks a mesmerizing riff.
The album winds its way through comedy, tragedy, unrequited love, and, at times, hillbilly violence: one stand out song is Carolina Drama, a story song which has faint echoes of Rocky Raccoon and twists along in a morose foot-stomping manner. Other songs sound more commercial and/or put-on: the uncut jangles of bells at the end of a take, or the slightly out-of-tune guitar, or even the pitchy warble of Jack White himself can sound just a tad too “off the cuff” to be accepted as an unconscious glimpse into the creative process of one of the last “effortless musicians” in our day and age. It’s worth noting that White himself says he writes music in order to allow people to give the songs a life of their own, one that has nothing to do with him personally; and he’s blunt about the fact that he’ll use “trickery” to get people interested. In the same breath he laments the fact that people are happy with replicas: they’re cocooned in the trappings of digital ease-of-access and hardly know how to appreciate original music anymore.
White is a bundle of contradictions. He’s darkly energetic, with a magnetism at once inspiring and upsetting. His career, persona, and cornucopia production-style feel angular and loaded, yet he’s the first to insist he’s just approaching music with a retroist didactic, like folks did before it became a popularity contest. “You have to sneak the medicine in with the mashed potatoes. Let people feel like it’s their own idea, so they can relate to it on their own level,” Jack White says. “And – as Michael Jackson said – you have to let God in the room.”
Acoustic Recordings 1998 – 2016 is worth a listen, especially with White’s philosophy in mind. Whether it answers questions or gives rise to more of them regarding life, death, or Jack White remains to be seen. For as starkly black and white as his fantastical complexion is, his music exists in the realm of nuance and ambiguity, with many bleeding tones and possibilities.