Jack White would probably like to be thought of as this generation’s Lead Belly, but really, he’s more likely to go onto to be like this generation’s Lou Reed-an obsessive but eclectic madman dedicated to his art and reinvention. Like Reed, White is also unafraid of failure or ridiculousness (see: Lulu and “Leck Mich Im Arsch”). Boarding House Reach sees White leaning into his own experimentation on the weird, sloppy, boring wreck of an album.
Not that anyone would expect Jack White to have the same intense fervor that he had during his White Stripes days, but what’s most evident on Boarding House Reach is White’s lack of ferocity. He can still shred, and his singing is the best it’s ever been, but it lacks some of the silly energy that made albums like Icky Thump or even Blunderbuss so enjoyable. “Connected by Love” sees him belting like never before, but it’s purely technical. The bizarre spoken-word interludes on songs like “Get in the Mind Shaft” show some higher aim, but they don’t sound as fleshed out, especially when White runs his voice through a vocoder to a lifeless point for no reason. The closest he comes to recapturing his energy is on “Ice Station Zebra,” where he mimics 80’s rap. The outro channels some modern pop too, but he doesn’t sound interested in his delivery or his lyrics.
The guitar work and production on the other hand is pretty impressive. Most of White’s shredding is soulless retreading of his past work, but he does capture some of his old impressive instrumental writing on songs like “Over and Over and Over.” What’s most impressive is White’s willingness to change his typical sound. This album sees him flirting with funk more than anything else. He seems less concerned with dropping a loud solo on something and more with locking into a tight rhythm. The album also sees White making bold choices like the popping bass and drums on the country ballad “What’s Done is Done.” He’s also trying to be more of a storyteller with these quick spoken-word interludes, and they see him playing with something like scoring a western radio-play. “Humoresque” might as well be a cut track from Les Misérables. The problem is: the spoken-word tracks don’t make sense, and the Les Mis b-side sounds like “Castle on a Cloud.” They’re risks very often without reward.
What you have to give White credit for is that he’s trying to be inventive and change his career trajectory, like Lou Reed always did. The difference was Reed didn’t really care if he maintained his identity from project to project. White is trying to change, but he still wants to be Jack White. With all the changes and experimentation he does on this, it’s impossible to hold onto both what he was and where he’s going. Boarding House Reach is exactly what it’s title implies that it is. It’s Jack White’s temporary residence until he finds where he can further his career.