Where do I even begin with this album? Jack White’s Boarding House Reach is an utter mess – a sprawling, frustrating, occasionally fascinating mess. After two albums of more or less rehashing the bluesy garage rock he perfected in the early 2000s with The White Stripes, Boarding House Reach marks a fairly drastic stylistic shift for Mr. White. Here, he’s incorporated elements of electronica, funk rock and hip-hop into his trademark sound. I use the word “incorporated” loosely here; White has tossed these styles haphazardly together, without so much as an attempt at cohesion.
The fundamental, crippling flaw at the core of Boarding House Reach is White’s seeming inability to develop any of his ideas into anything fulfilling. “Hypermisophoniac” features the germ of a solid vocal hook, but instead of being used as a foundation for a strong composition, it’s buried under dozens of random sound effects and noodly piano & guitar accents, until the track is disjointed and jumbled-up beyond repair. “Respect Commander” starts off with an attempt at breakbeat, then abandons it in favor of a slow, bluesy trudge before devolving into masturbatory garage-metal soloing. And the initially promising percussive bounce of “Corporation” meanders around aimlessly for over 5 minutes, without ever really developing or finding any sort of meaningful direction.
There’s also the issue of production, handled here by White himself. White has always struck me as something of an analog fetishist – obsessed with vinyl records, tube amps, and the like – and, predictably, he sounds out of his element on Boarding House Reach’s quasi-synthetic soundscapes. The climax on “Everything You’ve Ever Learned” is completely botched, lacking any of the dynamics or punch it so clearly ought to, and the too-busy instrumental of “Ice Station Zebra” completely clashes with White’s awkward, stiff rapping. Many decisions here, such as the one to double up White’s vocals on “Esmerelda Steals the Show,” are simply baffling; whatever effect he intended to create with it, the result is one of pointless sonic clutter. White’s best material has always been underpinned by a spartan, less-is-more mentality. Here, it seems more is often less. There’s a lot of things to listen to, but a dearth of substance underneath it all.
Despite the many missteps here, White casts a wide enough net that he inevitably comes up with a handful of worthwhile tracks. The album gets off to a good start, with White hamming it up in front of a warped gospel-blues instrumental on “Connected by Love.” The brooding “Why Walk a Dog?” is arguably the album’s lyrical peak, waxing philosophical on the nature of domestication. White’s speak-singing goes down a lot easier on the enjoyably frenetic “Over and Over and Over” then it does elsewhere on the album, and the Al Capone-penned “Humouresque” ends the album on a high note, a simple, sweet ballad that White pulls off with surprising grace.
If nothing else, Jack White certainly deserves some credit for making music that’s such a bold departure from his usual M.O., especially at a point in his career where he could easily get away with something low-effort and phoned-in. Still, however admirable it may be in concept, Boarding House Reach’s unfocused, scattershot execution makes its 45-minute runtime a chore to sit through. Despite some individually great moments, this album makes a strong case that some people are better off sticking to what they do best, and that Jack White might just be one of them.