An Expansion of Self
Jack White’s newest release, Jack White Acoustic Recordings 1998-2016, is an eclectic array of compositions collected throughout White’s career. Although this double-album’s title suggests that it may be a bundle of lost recordings or undiscovered B-sides from Jack White’s personal discography, it is more of a tribute to the integrity of White’s craftsmanship throughout his career. If White’s name is synonymous with artistry in the rock ‘n roll sphere, then this album certainly does not fail to deliver White’s characteristic standard of compositional prowess. Although true Jack White fans have heard many of these songs before, Jack White Acoustic Songs 1998-2016 becomes a new album unto itself. Most importantly, it provides us with a key insight into the character of Jack White, allowing us to view the progression of him as a songwriter as well as a person who, like us, is simply experiencing life.
The album contains some songs that were once staples of White’s career. The first side of the two-disc album is almost entirely made up of White Stripes songs – with the exception of “Never Far Away.” As if to make a statement, the first song presented to the listener is “Sugar Never Tasted So Good.” It is a perfect example of the aesthetic that White seeks to achieve on this album. “Sugar” is a stripped down version of a familiar song. Beginning with his characteristic knocks, White proceeds at a slightly slower tempo than that of the original, strumming his acoustic guitar and keeping beat to a tambourine. What is most startling, yet distinguishable, about this album in particular is White’s voice. For many, this voice has come to symbolize the trueness of rock music in a culture which seeks simply to monetize it. Yet, White has chosen to alter this paragon of musical integrity. The result is a much more intimate and raw display of his usually compressed voice. This rawness, along with the acoustic nature of the album, gives it an unmistakably bluesy vibe, allowing the listener to witness the powerful roots singer that is Jack White.
The first disc of Acoustic Recordings also presents other tracks important to White’s career like “Apple Blossom” which was featured in Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film, “The Hateful Eight.” “Honey, We Can’t Afford to Look This Cheap,” is an ironic portrayal of the life of a songwriter and an instance of more White’s humorous side. The fourth track, “Hotel Yorba,” allows us a glimpse into White’s ability to write country/hillbilly songs. Departing from the mood of the first three songs, “Hotel Yorba” features drum accompaniment that makes it seem like a meticulously produced rock song. The song’s chorus: “well, it’s one, two, three, four/take the elevator” will linger in the listener’s mind all day – a clear example of White’s power as a songwriter.
Songs like “We’re Going to Be Friends” and “Never Fade Away” are also extraordinarily memorable recordings due to their acoustic treatment. Both songs are driven by an arpeggiated, fingerpicked riff, over which White croons his intensely formulated lyrics. These tracks are opportunities for the listener to experience a close, special moment with White since they mark the only instances of him singing and playing his acoustic guitar. “Never Fade Away” is truly special, as it marks a new release for this album. The guitar, with its repeating low-string melodies and twinkling high-string syncopations, is compelling in its own right. By the time White sings the chorus, “you’ll see me in a dream,” the listener is experiencing almost exactly what the lyrics describe. The song takes on the mood of a dream, with White’s falsetto accomplishing something that does not seem humanly possible. Then again, it is Jack White.
Likewise, the second disc contains previously released songs – two from The Raconteurs, while the rest are Jack White originals. The songs from later on in White’s career make for a compelling listen, as his compositions start to incorporate a more bluesy style. The first song on the second disc, “Love is the Truth,” seems almost like a comic antithesis to the bluesy effort that White puts into the album. It is straightforward in its subject matter and less mysterious than White’s other songs, proclaiming, “love is as good as it gets, and you’ll get more if you give it.” And although it is a somewhat startling kick-off to the album’s second half, “Love is the Truth” gains the power of deep percussion instruments during its chorus, helping it to become much more of a rocking song, setting us up for the remainder of the album.
“Carolina Drama,” “Machine Gun Silhouette” and “I Guess I Should Go to Sleep” are among a few songs that establish White’s blues-oriented sound. “Carolina Drama” is exactly as its title indicates: an almost six-minute song that details the story of the main character, Billy, through his experiences with sadness and violence. It begins with the characteristic notes of a slide guitar, setting a sub-conscious indication that a story is about to begin. White sings with the same delivery that he used in The Raconteurs. Yet, the acoustic nature of this track creates an inherently more blues-oriented sound. “Machine Gun Silhouette” and “I Guess I Should Go to Sleep” feature a somewhat out-of-tune parlor piano, and the result is a much larger sound that still maintains a bluesy character. “I Guess I Should Go to Sleep” has an uneven time signature, causing the audience to sway with the track. By the end, the singer convinces himself to go to sleep, and the high falsetto fade-out makes the audience want follow suit in the most pleasant sort of way.
The album ends with “Want and Able,” which takes on the air of a folk song. It continues in the story-telling fashion of the preceding songs, with a groove similar to “I Guess I Should Go to Sleep.” There are not many words in this song, as White merely repeats the question: “Who is the who telling who what to do?” It is both relaxing and perplexing, offering a full sound that incorporates piano, along with White’s guitar and voice. Yet, it is both extraordinarily well-written and catchy. Much like the other 25 songs that comprise this double-album, it does not fail to impress either the casual or long-time listener of Jack White.