Show Hide image

What's Jack White made of?

White never stops working and everything he works with turns to gold.

Give any rock star long enough and they’ll start going on about “the blues”. It’s an instant ticket to musical authenticity. Make a stripped-down blues record in your dotage and you’re immediately inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Even Marcus Mumford is listening to Charlie Patton and Blind Boy Fuller on his iPod of a morning, thanks to the vast libraries of ancient music available online. The older and scratchier the blues is, the better. It’s got to sound like a wax-cylinder recording, caught in a one-horse studio, on the very spot where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. These odd gradations of “realness” within the blues are not a modern phenomenon. In 1935, Time was all over the story of Lead Belly, “the singing convict”. He turned up at Columbia Records in a sharp suit but was persuaded he’d sell more records in a stripy prison one-piece.

When the band Alabama Shakes met the collective consciousness this spring, knickers were twisted over whether or not the band were all they claimed to be. The blues-rock quartet, fronted by Brittany Howard, weren’t actually claiming to be anything, other than from Alabama, which they were, but people were suspicious of how fast they rose – thanks largely to a tip-off from Adele and an invitation by Jack White to record some 45s for his Third Man Records label. The band sold out gigs in the UK on the strength of one song: “It’s a mystery to me how the industry works,” said their guitarist Heath Fogg. The speed of music circulation and the opportunities for personal detective work on the internet have made sniffing out musical fakes a fun modern pastime. Alabama Shakes have raw energy. People were hearing Nina Simone or Aretha Franklin all over again in Howard’s voice and, in the bare tones of Fogg’s guitar, the undiluted experience of civil-rights-era rock’n’roll.

Surely no one would claim that rough, unprocessed music is a truer form of art. But today’s mainstream blues bands – Alabama Shakes, the Black Keys, Cold Specks – evoke terrific nostalgia for some point in the past, real or imaginary, when very little stood between us and our artists – and the recording world was not the vast galaxy of fleeting stars and rapid burnouts we know now but a tightly controlled roster of entertainers to whom we nurtured serious attachments.

All these bands are seeking out analogue studios over digital ones. The Black Keys recorded at Muscle Shoals in Alamaba recently and were dismayed to find the original burlap “treatment” on the walls was long gone. They use vintage instruments – cheap 1950s and 1960s “off-brand” guitars and ancient high-end valve amplifiers – and they visit hallowed spaces such as Sun Studio in Memphis, as though hoping to conduct some kind of rock’n’roll seance by holding Elvis’s microphone. And as the old live sessions are revived (“You screw up, we’re not stopping”), software plug-ins give songs an instant sheen of old-time imperfection, the musical equivalent of distressed denim.

Last year, the Swiss label Voodoo Rhythm Records put out a huge compilation of what they called “blues trash”, made gloriously “no-fi” through the simple trick of distortion. The mud-caked chain-gang songs were almost entirely recorded by middle-aged Europeans; they delighted in their own fakery, which leaves us not a million miles from Lead Belly’s suit and the delicate notion of artifice that has for so long hung around the blues.

At 623 7th Avenue, Nashville, the nerve centre of White’s Third Man Records, a giant cartoon radio tower transmits squiggly plastic lines of “music” into the sky. Coffee is served from red-and-white, custom-made retro crockery (these being the uniform colours of his ex-band the White Stripes), and sodas from a replica 1950s fountain. The man U2’s the Edge once described as “one of those natural performance artists” has built a world whose aesthetic precisely reflects his caricature musical persona. White has always loved toying with perception – his 1980s Detroit upbringing was partially obscured by a fantasy “cold mountain” life of old-time blues; was Meg White his sister or wife? Even his band the Raconteurs dressed as mountebanks and travelling salesmen, their press photos framed in vintage vignettes.

Yet musically, White’s entire raison d’être – even your nan knows this – has always been about “keeping it real”. He pioneered the analogue studio revival and the return to live re­cording and vintage instruments; he presses his own vinyl “to bring a spontaneous and tangible aesthetic back into the record business”. Without White, there would be no Alabama Shakes or Black Keys or Cold Specks – at least, they wouldn’t have made it to the mainstream. Four years ago, in the Davis Guggenheim film It Might Get Loud, White pitched himself as the sole saviour of the blues for the younger generation, twanging out a grim-faced version of “Froggy Went a-Courting” for Jimmy Page.

He cut a faintly ridiculous figure – stylised and self-conscious, bashing on about authenticity – but he really did stand alone in his nostalgia for a musical era that he never lived through and his determination to recreate it.

White never stops working and everything he works with turns to gold. Aside from his sometime supergroups the Raconteurs and Dead Weather (the White Stripes were terminated in 2011), there’s last year’s Rome project – the lush ode to spaghetti westerns, on which he sings with Norah Jones – and stylish late-career rebootings for Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson. White’s musical thumbprint is so indelible – Whammy pedals, “Big Muff” distortion box, 1950s-era Gretsch guitars, wobbly, fretful voice – you’d be forgiven for thinking every project he’s ever done is a Jack White solo album and that announcing Blunderbuss as his first is just another trick of the eye.

Whatever, it’s a ravishing record: a bloody dramatisation of relationship breakdown, a mad carousel of severed limbs, violence, despair, rumbling passion, passive aggression and cartoonish self-pity, all wrapped up in 1950s rock, 1970s roll, blues and saloon-bar piano. But it’s not Jack White’s break-up record – that would be too simple. (He split from the model Karen Elson last year but the couple maintain an amicable separation and even held a “divorce party”.) Instead, it’s another performance, more stylised, and funnier, than anything he’s done before. There’s a rough, time-capsule cover of Little Willie John’s 1960s twister “I’m Shakin’” (“I’m noyvous!”), while the delightfully ramshackle “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” scales a rickety tune that would sit well with the young Rod Stewart or Ray Davies. Put these songs end-to-end with the White Stripes and you wouldn’t know where the band finishes and the solo stuff begins. But White is uniquely able to execute a real attack on something that has been done, in one form or another, a thousand times before. If that creative energy is generated by play-acting, bowler hats and colour schemes, so be it.

He’s touring the album accompanied by an all-girl band (they wear organza nighties onstage and one of them is heavily pregnant) and an all-boy band. The sexes have rehearsed different arrangements of the new material and White will showcase them at random on different nights. All this for no reason other than to see what happens: to “create a conflict”, he has explained. It’s a gimmick of the first order. But what started out as a pursuit of musical truth – capturing a song’s magic, rough, live and in the moment – has over time become White’s living art project. He truly believes in this stuff and people can feel that. His fake world has become his real one.

Great pretenders make real artists. We’re nostalgic for the way we forged attachments to those artists in the past; for a time when rock stars were larger than life; when we asked for less transparency from them, not more. When we didn’t know – or want to know – about the relatively ordinary person that lay beneath.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The Science Issue