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Jack White is one of contemporary rock music’s great personalities. A genius, a virtuoso, a short fuse, an excavator, a revelator.
His career, from the first four-track White Stripes recordings to his most recent solo effort, 2018’s intricate and elaborate Boarding House Reach, has morphed and shifted as he has revealed more and more of his idiosyncratic self and pushed the boundaries of his musicianship in new directions.
A list five times as long as this one would still struggle to encapsulate all of the many faces and voices of Jack White.
But here are 10 of them.
— Kayleigh Hughes
Jack, Meg, and Raw Freedom in the Garage
Song: “Cannon” from The White Stripes’ The White Stripes (1999)
In 1999, when The White Stripes released their lo-fi, high-energy self-titled debut, the national rock charts were decorated by the likes of Bush, Everlast, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And The White Stripes didn’t change that much at all. It would be a few years before Jack and Meg galvanized the music world with White Blood Cells (Pitchfork didn’t review the Stripes’ first two records until a 2002 re-release). But in the dark, sweaty corners of garages and basements throughout Detroit, wailing like a banshee about John the Revelator and with Meg by his side bashing out the raw powerful heartbeat of the song, White didn’t sound like he cared about the outside world at all.
“Cannon” is a perfect example of early White Stripes. Slow, reverb-heavy guitar ramps up fast but stays crunchy as White settles into grooves and moods. The song pulls directly from a powerful early gospel blues song originally recorded by Blind Willie Johnson, and the Stripes use parts of iconic blues musician Son House’s a capella version. Meg’s bass drum kicks you in the heart while her cymbals crackle and spark. Sounding like a haunting but riotous death march, “Cannon” leaves you feeling more alive than you maybe ever have, indicating that right from the start, Jack and Meg were able to create something very special together. — K.H.
Jack the Bluesman
Song: “Death Letter” from The White Stripes’ De Stijl (2000)
Rock music has always been stylistically rooted in the dense musical soil of black Southern blues. The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the list goes on and on. As the modern rock paradigm shifts from decade to decade, contemporary fascination with the blues remains a prominent stylistic influence. Jack White is perhaps one of the genre’s most prominent purveyors in the modern guitar music era. White’s undying adulation for the blues legends knows no end, with him even going so far as to call legendary Delta Blues artist Son House’s track “Grinnin’ in Your Face” his favorite song of all time.
An homage to one of his biggest artistic influences, “Death Letter” — originally recorded by House himself in 1965 — is one of the most pointed examples of White’s infatuation with blues music. It’s an outright proclamation tracing White’s roots back decades. Utilizing madman guitar wizardry and a deep knowledge of blues cadences, his reinvention of House’s Southern twang into his own invigorating thrash is doubly an homage to his musical influences and an argument for the reinvention of the blues in a modern sense. — John Flynn
Jack the Punk
Song: “Fell in Love with a Girl” from The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells (2001)
One of Jack White’s most beloved musical creations relies on the most classic punk rock song structure of all time: the power chord. “Fell in Love with a Girl” is fast, rude, and electrifying; it’s a study in raw simplicity. White shrieks maniacally. Meg smashes the shit out of the drum kit, leaving indelible fingerprints with every motion. It’s one minute and fifty seconds of fury and joy, panting and tingling.
And in true punk rock fashion, the song relies on a short and sweet vocabulary to get you where you need to be. “She turns and says, ‘Are you alright?’/ I say, ‘I must be fine because my heart’s still beating.’” Thump.“Fell in Love with a Girl” is arguably the pinnacle of what a Jack and Meg collaboration could be. Of all the musicians who have covered the song over years, none has ever made “Fell in Love with a Girl” sound and feel the way it does when The White Stripes play it. — K.H.
Jack the Demon Boy
Song: “Black Math” from The White Stripes’ Elephant (2003)
On one hand, tracks like “Hotel Yorba” and “You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket” are an exsposé into White’s sensitivities, but it’s tracks like “Black Math” that cause us to stop and ponder, “Maybe Jack White is some sort of demonic alien sent to us from another planet to subvert the garage rock genre altogether.” His persona certainly aligns with such a theory. Claims that The White Stripes began on Bastille Day, the self-constructed rumor that he and Meg are siblings, his vampiric physical appearance… let’s admit it: Jack White the “thrash king” is a bit of a demon.
Yes, there are probably valid explanations for White’s peculiar behavior, but have you ever seen him and the gremlins in the same room together? There’s a certain air of mystery ingrained into his core being, and nothing musically emulates such a persona quite like “Black Math”. As White boldly screams out “I’m writing down things that I don’t understand,” his guitar cadence kicks into overdrive, shifting tempos to bolster its chaotic screech.
With the “go fuck yourself” touchstones of Iggy Pop and blues riff sensibilities of Jimmy Rogers, White seems to be from another planet, his inner demon released once and for all in what is one of his catalog’s most invigorating solos. One can’t help but feel like he must have dropped dead after recording the track or at least hopped back into his UFO. — J.F.
Jack the Vulnerable
Song: “You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket” from The White Stripes’ Elephant (2003)
Translating feelings into words is hard. Often, the burning flame of emotion doesn’t seem to carry the same luminous glare on paper as it does in one’s heart. Broadcasting those emotions to the entirety of the music world for them to be analyzed under a microscope? The thought is enough to induce a panic attack. Perhaps such anxieties help explain our keenness to listen to such ballads, though. It’s why we get together at weddings and scream “Bohemian Rhapsody” at the top of our lungs, not fully stopping to consider its rather despondent subject matter.
After all, there’s something reassuring about hearing someone expose their deepest vulnerabilities via song. Musical confirmation that, yes, even famous musicians are just as fucked up as we are. “You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket” sheds light on White’s fragility within his dissolving relationship with an unnamed party (presumably Meg White, given its release date). Keeping her “in his pocket” is White’s effort to protect and shield her from the world.
But the relationship is toxic in nature. The sentiment is equal parts fatherly and possessive, exposing White’s convoluted paternal desire to possess another human being. “But now you’re scared, you think she’s running away,” he croons, desperate in his efforts to get her to stay. It’s an admittance of emotional defeat in which White reconciles the toxic side of his feelings and grapples with the pain of letting go of his beloved. For a guitarist who’s known for making bold proclamations and busting out vivacious solos, the track is one of the most candid glimpses into White’s “softer side.” — J.F.
Song: “Intimate Secretary” from The Raconteurs’ Broken Boy Soldiers (2006)
In 2005, White teamed up with musicians Brendan Benson, Jack Lawrence, and Patrick Keeler for the bluesy, groovy, off-kilter rock project The Raconteurs. White had a heavy hand in the project, writing, singing, playing guitar and keyboard, mixing and producing. But the group allowed for tons of collaboration, resulting in something quirkier and more indie-playful than anything the Stripes were putting out.
The Raconteurs saw White’s singular vocals mingling with Benson’s smooth delivery to create a sound that’s soft, modern, and sweetly sensual. “Intimate Secretary” showcases an irresistible melody, oddly banal but endearing lyrics (“I’ve got a pen, but I lost the top”) and a real carnival of sounds coming from a group of performers having a mid-aughts ball: a clear and bright acoustic guitar, spacey smiling alien effects, tambourines, a twinkling keyboard, and more.
The song layers it all — along with White’s howls and Benson’s intimate, grounding vocals — for a sonic climax that is both deeply weird and sweetly celebratory. — K.H.
Jack Rages Against the Machine
Song: “Icky Thump” from The White Stripes’ Icky Thump (2007)
“White Americans. What, nothin’ better to do?/ Why don’t you kick yourself out? You’re an immigrant, too.” The infamous line was written at the tail end of a rather tumultuous Bush presidency, during a time when widespread Islamophobia, war interests over oil, and harsh deportation laws had reached what was thought to be a pinnacle in the US. White had no ability to foreshadow the current political disaster known as Trump at the time, but the parallels between Bush and Trump’s America aren’t hard to make.
While White’s outward turn towards the US political sphere is a bit of a rarity, its potency is imposing. Reminiscent of Joe Strummer’s proclamation on Combat Rock, “It has been suggested in some quarters, that this is not enough,” White’s transgressions against the state are inflicted with a certain degree of resolve. With snake-charming solos played on a Univox synth, the track is a grating insult to the Bush fan club, and, considering today’s dire political situation, “Icky Thump” might foreshadow potential political heat arising from White’s forthcoming album.
One can only hope that White uses his musical platform to dig into the heartless pile of coal known as “The President” throughout the course of his next album. — J.F.
Jack the Drummer
Song: “So Far from Your Weapon” from The Dead Weather’s Horehound (2009)
The Dead Weather — made up of White, The Kills’ Alison Mosshart, Queens of the Stone Age’s Dean Fertita, and Jack Lawrence of City and Colour and The Raconteurs — have been well-regarded by critics and loyal Jack White superfans, but mostly disregarded by everyone else. A supergroup of incredibly sharp rock instrumentalists, band struggle to create something new out of its members’ myriad talents, more often amplifying existing traits.
But on the The Dead Weather’s first record, Jack sat down at the drum kit for the first time (more or less) in over a decade, and his work with the group offers some of the best examples of what it sounds like for Jack White to let others be the stars. “So Far from Your Weapon,” for instance, off the band’s 2009 debut, Horehound, is incredible for what it lacks in Jack. Mosshart is the track’s sole writer, Fertita the only guitarist.
White’s contribution comes in the form of chanted backing vocals and an utterly unobtrusive, gently snare- and cymbal-heavy drum performance. The listener can hear Jack rumbling softly, sounding very far away, but it’s primarily Mosshart’s soulful show. — K.H.
Jack Alone (With His Ghosts)
Song: “Hypocritical Kiss” from Blunderbuss (2012)
Blunderbuss marks the first album on which Jack White performs completely solo. It’s solely his project, top to bottom, start to finish, and he had quite a few things to say (not that he’d ever admit it as explicitly as that.) On Blunderbuss, White sounds — and arguably was — upset at the dissolution of The White Stripes, which he attributed in large part to Meg’s acute anxiety, and he was also in the midst of splitting from his wife at the time, Karen Elson.
On songs like the delicate but searing “Hypocritical Kiss,” it’s impossible not to hear him reckoning with both these major life events. At times, he is gentle, with sweet, longing piano melodies and the gentle intimate observations of someone who cares a lot and always will: “Loud words never bother me like they do to you.” But he can’t help but open up into wounded, spitting rage: “Who the hell’s impressed by you?” and “You would sell your own mother out and then betray your dead brother with another hypocritical kiss.”
The song is lovely and brutal, more so once you realize Jack may well be speaking from another’s point of view with some of these lyrics, eviscerating himself. Because of its vulnerability, its delicate and desperate balance of softness and sharp edges, Blunderbuss remains almost certainly White’s most successful solo effort. — K.H.
Jack the Virtuoso
Song: “High Ball Stepper” from Lazaretto (2014)
When White released Lazaretto in 2014, he needed to make a bold statement. After all, his side projects with The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather hadn’t struck nearly the same chords as The White Stripes’ last two albums, and his debut solo album — however brilliant it may be — didn’t quite reach Stripes levels either. Whether or not White feels pressure to live up to The White Stripes’ legacy is unclear. He stated in an interview with Rolling Stone that “there is a case to be made that in a lot of ways, The White Stripes is Jack White solo.”
Still, the impetus for a strong follow-up to 2012’s Blunderbuss was certainly present, and the result was a bold pronouncement of White’s technical mastery, and the album’s lead single, “High Ball Stepper,” was the biggest statement the project had to offer. With no lyrics — barring the cry of some sort of Jack-in-the-Box — the track knocks White’s critics in their jugular with a vicious sentiment: I am here and I am the best guitar player the 21st century has to offer, God damn it. No lyrical content, just the sheer energy of six strings being manipulated to create jarring melodies.
Pure, unadulterated guitar frenzy. If anything, the track is the biggest testament to White’s guitar skills since the release of Elephant. — J.F.
Jack White in 10 Songs Playlist: