Diane Keaton once said that with age comes a sense of freedom. Judi Dench once said that with age comes silliness, adding, “I don’t know what wisdom means.” And Jack White now sings, “The rock ‘n’ roller, the young and older / Rolling back to the stroller,” which might mean he agrees with those ladies.
The vision of maturation as a journey to DGAF kookiness may help decode vexing new albums by two former young guns of rock. White, famously of the White Stripes and less famously a solo artist, and Julian Casablancas, famously of the Strokes and less famously of the Voidz, both broke out in the early 2000s with “back to basics” songs, sparse and immediate. The orderliness of “Seven Nation Army” might have predicted the Marie Kondo movement. “Last Nite” bore the kind of effortless verve that means great effort was put into creating it. But these two guys’ new albums are shaggy and strange, evoking disorderly attics or overgrown flower gardens. It’s not a matter of searching through the mess to find the treasure—it’s a matter of appreciating the mess as a treasure in itself.
Among the kitchen-sink blues freakouts on White’s third solo album, Boarding House Reach, the one to really give the flavor of the thing is the single “Corporation.” It’s a nearly six-minute, largely instrumental workout, with session players taking their turns laying down cartoon-boogie solos over a classic bongos-and-drums breakbeat. From the middle of the din, White makes like a street preacher or guerrilla drill sergeant, riffing on the refrain, “I’m thinking about starting a corporation. Who’s with me!?” It’s not unpleasing to the ear, this party, just a little inscrutable. Answer the man: You’re with him, or you’re not.
If you’re with him, you’ll throw up devil horns at every zany decision: the sci-fi opera chorus punctuating the Rage Against the Machine-esque tumble of “Over and Over and Over”; the Schoolhouse Rock! speech on artistic borrowing in “Ice Station Zebra”; the escalating guitar squiggles announcing an ode to female dominance on “Respect Commander”; the multiplicity of songs that amount to little more than ironic spoken-word doggerel. Does any of it mean anything? Well, it’s almost too obvious how White’s disregard for sonic decorum dovetails with his lyrics and interviews bemoaning the modern condition—fashion-chasing, gossip-lusting, cell-phone addicted. But there’s not much to meditate on, much less sing along with. It’s music with which to thrash and grin, and then forget.