by Rob Stimpson
A vast majority of musicians are defined by the bands through which they make their name. For most, these bands either provide a platform from which to forge a career, or a burdensome shadow from which they can never escape. To certain audiences, Paul Weller has never quite vacated the legacy of The Jam, Morrissey will still only ever be the lead singer of The Smiths, and even Paul McCartney’s Wings were never given full approval due to the small matter of The Beatles. In fact, it is only the rarely gifted artists of the ilk of the Wellers, Morrisseys, McCartneys, Lennons and Harrisons who can shift from one huge band to another form of artistry with continued artistic credibility and relative commercial success. It is the inherent difficulty of such a task that makes Jack White loom large over the contemporary field of rock musicians; to date he was the driving force behind The White Stripes, a member of The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, and is now currently Jack White, the solo artist, following the release of Blunderbuss, his debut solo album.
Despite his incredibly prolific ability to roam with success, Jack White’s position at the head table of modern rock still causes some ire and frustration. He is a self-confessed workaholic, having plied his trade in the aforementioned three bands, he also oversees Third Man, a record store, recording studio and record label in Nashville, Tennessee. Even in this role, White takes a very hands-on approach, contributing and performing on most of the label’s releases. Such an intense work rate has resulted in accusations of an overbearing and controlling ego, but the more realistic approach is that Jack White simply likes to challenge himself.
The band with which he is synonymous with, with whom he forged his reputation, and with whom he shares his stage name, is The White Stripes. A two-piece Detroit garage-rock band, Jack and Meg White rose to prominence steadily, releasing two ‘cult’ albums before finding their feet commercially with the 2001 release of White Blood Cells. The basic approach to performing and recording the music, coupled with the growing aura surrounding the origins of the band, and the exact details of Jack and Meg’s relationship, caused word to spread. White revealed that he and his band mate were brother and sister, which caused the arching of an eyebrow or two owing to their electric, sexual stage chemistry. Even the discovery of a marriage and divorce certificate that confirmed that Jack and Meg were in fact ex-husband and wife wasn’t enough to deter his stance that they were, in fact, siblings.
To White, such details about the person, or people, behind the music are irrelevant. He equated such probing questions into his private life as akin to asking Michelangelo what shoes he wore. Ultimately, it is irrelevant, because in the long run, all that will remain is the work, not the artist. Such an allusive attitude in an age of a frenzied 24-hour media only heightens the mysterious, unknown element of the man. But perhaps that is the point. It is impossible to not be intrigued about a man who married a supermodel in a canoe on the Amazon River in a ceremony conducted by a shaman with his ex-wife/sister, Meg, as maid of honour, only for the couple to host an amicable divorce party on their sixth wedding anniversary. To simply be told that a man of such interest doesn’t matter, and that the music should be concentrated on is a difficult line to tow, and the interest only increases. Fortunately for Jack White, the quality of such music is unfalteringly high.
The release of Elephant in 2003 saw The White Stripes’ profile reach its popular peak. The album was the band’s masterpiece, an advancement on White Blood Cells in every way. It was fiercer, more refined and aggressive, but incredibly focused. It showcased the first real signs of the fearless Jack White. With his name and reputation secured, there is an exuding of confidence that only a master craftsman can display. White’s songs sway from punk to ballads, from blues to country; it is both tender and ferocious, serene and explosive. The greatest compliment to bestow on Elephant is that it echoes The Beatles (The White Album) in its swaggering strut through its eclectic track list.
The follow up albums, Get Behind Me Satan and Icky Thump, were equally as impressive in their own right, but sadly not in the commercial sense. The experimentation was once again increased, Jack White seemingly revelling in pushing the limits of the musical possibilities open to a band consisting of only two members. The foundation, as always, was guitar rock, but the seemingly more erratic, dirtier guitars, the marimba solos, the sporadic, crashing cymbals and drum bursts naturally drove away any kind of mainstream attention, but the continued juxtaposition of styles kept music fans entranced at the thought of where the journey might take them next. The beauty of it was, and still is, that with Jack White, your predictions are never settled on solid ground.
After The White Stripes were put on hiatus, and later disbanded, due to Meg White’s anxiety problems, Jack White inevitably threw himself into other projects. Firstly, came The Raconteurs, a band formed with Brendan Benson, Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler. The very fact that the band was formed because White and Benson had spontaneously written a song together is the perfect microcosm of the former’s wish to be constantly trying his hand at something different. With only one song to hand, a band was formed and the album Broken Boy Soldiers was written and released, and to much critical acclaim. The follow up album,Consolers Of The Lonely, was an even better offering, though. Coincidentally, White had a far heavier input into the second offering having taken somewhat of a back seat for Broken By Soldiers. Conclusions can be drawn from the evidence.
Much like The Raconteurs, White’s third band, The Dead Weather, are an amalgam of previously successful artists coming together to try something new. In fact, in an effort to avoid being repetitive, White decided to be the drummer rather than lead guitarist; and not just any drummer, but a very talented one at that. The formation of the band and the road to recording the first album, Horehound, was a self-confessed directionless venture; it was making music for the sake of making music and, essentially, a jamming session turned into the recording of an album. It would be unfair to say that Horehound, and its follow-up, Sea Of Cowards, are missteps in Jack White’s career, as they are solid efforts, and he only co-wrote a handful of the songs himself. If anything, The Dead Weather venture only further enhanced the credibility of Jack White’s legend, proving once more that he can seemingly turn his hand to any element of music and excel at it.
Having fulfilled nearly every role there is to fill in the music industry, Jack White the solo artist was seemingly inevitable, if only for the reason that it hadn’t been done yet. But such simplicity would not satisfy, of course. For the tour to accompany the release of Blunderbuss, White has assembled both a female and male backing band to play on alternate nights, and rehearsed a different live set with each. His explanation for doubling his workload? He just can’t take the easy way out. Doing so doesn’t allow him to flourish creatively, and as a musical artist, that would naturally be a hindrance. The results of this insistence on accepting self-imposed challenges are evident in Blunderbuss, however, as Jack White continues to stride from strength to strength. He can be labelled as opinions dictate; overrated, underrated, legend, icon, God – but one thing will remain indisputable: Jack White will be somewhere making something difficult for himself, and an awful lot of people will be waiting impatiently for the fruits of his labour.