The most weirdly memorable part of the New York Times’ recent profile of Jack White occurs near the end, when White describes a dream he supposedly had the night before that acts as an almost too-perfect metaphor for his complicated engagement with women. The particulars of the dream are typical Jack White stuff—kids in newsboy caps, corpses, imagery that’s both gothic and inspired by bad ’50s sci-fi—but in the broad strokes, it conjures the strikingly familiar mix of awe, fear, lust, and resentment swirling around in the subconscious of many straight guys vis a vis the opposite sex.
In the dream, White encounters a woman who arouses him, and as his desire grows out of control, she grows bigger and bigger and moves further and further out of reach. “Not only was she becoming larger and more important than me, and able to crush me or destroy me—but at the same time she’s going out of focus, and I’m less in touch with how to connect with her. It’s really interesting,” White says. “I don’t know who that girl is. Maybe she’s all girls.”
There’s an unnamed girl in nearly all of the songs on White’s debut solo album, Blunderbuss. Maybe she’s all girls, but she mostly appears to be his ex-wife. Not his most recent ex-wife, Karen Elson, but Meg White—the first woman he married, divorced, adopted as a sister, reluctantly re-christened as a mere bandmate, and then split up with in 2011.
The country baroque of the title track presents a very pretty façade of cocktail piano and steel-guitar curtsies, under which lies what could be an epitaph for White’s former band: “A romance bust/A blunder turned/Explosive blunderbuss.” Later, on the pun-happy goof “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy,” Jack appears to address Meg more directly: “And you’ll be watching me, girl/Taking over the world/Let the stripes unfurl/Gettin’ rich singin’ poor boy/Poor boy.”
The music White has written for Blunderbuss is in line, more or less, with what’s expected of him: There are nods to classic blues, R&B, and folk, but it’s essentially a classicist rock record that’s just straightforward enough for a tenured superstar and summer-festival headliner to, as it were, keep on “gettin’ rich.” This is not a criticism: There are at least five songs on Blunderbuss that match the excellence of The White Stripes’ best, and on the whole the album performs the tricky task of updating White’s musical aesthetic without euthanizing its primal nature. There are more pianos on Blunderbuss than on any White record since 2005’s Get Behind Me Satan, only this time they aspire to the eternally graceful tinkling of famed ’70s British rock sideman Nicky Hopkins, rather than the besotted-hobo-throwing-elbows keys crash of Satan. But overall, Blunderbuss is polished without feeling picked apart or picked over.
What’s surprising about Blunderbuss is the degree to which White seems to be commenting on the break-up of The White Stripes. White isn’t normally so forthright; he delights in playfully switching up the labels in his personal history, and presenting a can of beans as truth and vice versa. Which is not to say he’s not doing that now: It’s entirely possible, for instance, that he made up that dream on the spot when talking to the Times reporter. But that seems doubtful, as images of bewitching, elusive women (or woman) recur frequently on Blunderbuss.
The slinking soul cruiser “Missing Pieces” is about a woman who will “walk away, that’s right, and take a part of you with them.” The fantastically rampaging “Sixteen Saltines” (which cribs its riff from the version of The Who’s “I’m Free” on the Tommy film soundtrack) is about a lovesick boy left literally out to sea, “solo rowing” with “a life saver down my throat.” “Freedom At 21” is a grumpy shove against mobile technology, though the crimes committed by the lady with “two black gadgets in her hand” cut deeper than inopportune tweeting. (“She does what she wants to me,” White sings.)
In The White Stripes, Jack White played a role that seemed akin to David Carradine’s Bill from the Kill Bill movies: He was the charismatic dandy who talked Meg into being his beautiful yet aggressive sidekick. He dressed her up in kitschy throwback outfits, and together they jetted around the world, killing audiences and getting paid vast sums of money. But when pressed about this “passive-aggressive” relationship at the heart of The White Stripes by the New York Times, White insisted the opposite was true: That Meg White “completely controlled The White Stripes,” that “she’s the most stubborn person I’ve ever met”—that, in essence, “she does what she wants to me.”
Jack White is easily the most compelling and important male rock star of the 21st century; setting aside the most obvious bullet-points on his resume—he’s a shit-hot guitarist; he’s mysterious and eccentric without being remote or off-putting; he’s uncommonly talented at coming up with color schemes that look badass onstage—White matters because his music is a vehicle for understanding how contemporary dudedom views and relates to women.
This has always been a part of being a compelling and important male rock star: What Mick Jagger was to the ’60s fantasy of achieving all-powerful immortality via fleeting, existential sexual encounters with a sea of faceless hippie chicks, and Axl Rose was to the ’80s belief that sex was so frightening that it inevitably became a way to express your self-loathing, Jack White is a thoroughly modern conflation of old-world masculinity and new-world post-gender cultural identity. He’s a man’s man who prefers the company of women, a guy who craves control and yet pleads that he's vulnerable.
This push-pull in White’s music—between chest-beating rock and twee, childlike love songs, from “Seven Nation Army” and “Ball And Biscuit” to “We’re Going To Be Friends” and “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket”—moves into decidedly darker, more adult territory on Blunderbuss. These songs exude deep, bitter disappointment. The romanticism of old has been replaced by a reality as cold as the album cover’s frigid blue hue.
On the remarkable “Hypocritical Kiss,” White play-acts the end of The White Stripes with a Dylan-esque duality of recrimination and self-flagellation. White begins by pointing the finger at his meek sparring partner (“Loud words never bother me like they do you”), but he saves the sharpest dagger for himself: “You’re the boy that talks but says nothing.” It’s an argument you can almost imagine Jack and Meg actually having, though White hasn’t stopped idealizing what he’s lost. It’s something that grows larger and murkier on Blunderbuss, and now exists only in White’s dreams.