Jack White: Fear of the Dawn (Third Man) – review

Jack White

Fear of the Dawn

Third Man

Apr 08, 2022
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In the opening scene of the 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud, Jack White, dressed like a 19th century undertaker on a farm porch, hammers nails into a dirty old block of wood. An empty glass coke bottle that sits where the pickups would be on a normal guitar provides bend to the single string he’s wound on the nails. He plugs an amp into the instrument’s makeshift electronics, plays a little wailing slide guitar and then quips, “Who says you need to buy a guitar?”

This was the established mythos of Jack White in 2008. The White Stripes guitarist was a conscious throwback not to the major label rock ‘n’ roll gods of the 1970s, but the gritty, poor, DIY bluesmen they aped their sound from. Why does the first White Stripes album sound so rough, like it was recorded in a run-down rural shed? Because that’s the sound of Son House’s “Grinnin’ in Your Face.” And in the era or quantized drum parts and digitally smooth, corporate radio rock, White’s raw, earthy aesthetics felt like a revelation. It’s a mythos that didn’t change much in the following decade. The White Stripes broke up, White ditched candy cane red and white for black and blue, released a few solo records, and founded his own vinyl pressing plant. All very analogue of him. Then, in 2017, he found pro tools. Boarding House Reach saw White experimenting with the pleasures the electronic age provides and embracing music this side of the century, but it also felt like an incomplete listen. It’s an odd duck; not without White’s bluesy touches, dynamic riffs (see “Over and Over and Over”) or eccentricities (one particular song draws on the poetry of Chicago gangster Al Capone).

On Fear of the Dawn, he’s lost his fucking mind. He’s like a kid discovering the various sound effects on his new Casio keyboard: he simply can’t resist trying them all. The moment you realize how far off the deep end he’s gone is “Hi-De-Ho.” Imagine, if you will, a regular song as a puzzle (real original analogy, this is). You’ve got your hook, your verses, your chorus, maybe a nice bridge (a nice bridge really ties a song together, don’t it?), maybe even a solo. Put all the pieces in the proper places and you get something radio friendly for bartenders to play during closing time.

White hates your puzzle. He’s thrown the pieces up in the air and where they land is where they land. To hell with your hook. You want a hook? How about a drunken, stammering guitar. He’s discovered sampling: old school jazz singer Cab Calloway wails like a fiddle before declaring himself the “hi-de-ho man.” You want a verse? How about Q-Tip’s — yes, that Q-Tip, from A Tribe Called Quest, one of the greatest hip-hop acts ever to do it (and with whom White collaborated on the group’s final album) — scat rap rhymes of “Chuck Berry” with “Mariah Carey” over a choppy guitar funk. You want a bridge? How about an acoustic Spanish guitar breakdown in the middle of the damn song. What does it mean to “hi-de-ho” with Jack? Does it even matter?

“Into the Twilight” goes further: a schizophrenic collage of densely packed electronic sounds, Furby-esque vocal fragments, scatting, guitars, keyboards, and just about anything else White could get his hands on in the studio. He also reveals the crux of what he’s doing: “when you cut into the present, the future leaks out.”

This is rock music from the year 2064. And it’s absolutely glorious. There’s an infectious energy that permeates throughout the album, as he transitions frantically from musical passage to musical passage. It begins with the fuzzed out lead single, “Taking Me Back,” probably the closest thing to a trad-rock song White can still muster. Even then, it’s adorned with glitchy guitar effects and a very silly line that contrasts taking coffee black with “taking me back.” On “The White Raven,” he interrupts a rock romp with operatic trills. On “Eosophobia” he signals for a burst of guitars by screeching like a howler monkey (come to think of it, he does this a lot). And he’s absolutely manic on “What’s the Trick?,” complaining “I’m using appropriate compression for/My inappropriate confessions for/Someone I guess who might need it more/I don’t even know what I’m doing it for” (minor critique: maybe a little too compressed, Mr. White) before furiously scolding “plus one, minus one equals zero/That’s a defeatist attitude!” It just builds and builds in intensity, like the ramblings of a lunatic you might find pacing the grounds of a sketchy Waffle House at 3 a.m.

“Shedding My Velvet” closes the record; slower and more methodical than the prior ruckus, building off a shimmering vibraphone, a bluesy guitar lick, a relaxed drum groove, a plucky bass funk. It’s a powerful contrast to the chaos he’s perpetrated, like a sympathetic villain reflecting on what he’s done. “I’m shedding my velvet, can’t you see?” he sings. “This is the real me.” His final words are surprisingly somber: “‘Better to illuminate than merely to shine,’ you say this all the time/And you’re right.”

So what’s going on here? Well, here’s a theory: in the past, White spoke about his admiration of the late great hip-hop producer J Dilla and even recently collaborated with Tyler, The Creator on his 2019 lovesick opus, Igor. And whether or not he knows it, it seems as though hip-hop has influenced not only the sounds and grooves he’s playing with, but the song structures themselves, sharing more in common with abstract hip-hop records like El-P’s Fantastic Damage or Madlib’s Dil Cosby Suite than Led Zeppelin II. Then again, an argument could just as easily be made that Fear of the Dawn shares just as much in common with the musique concrete of Frank Zappa’s We’re Only In It For the Money, or the sheer wackiness of mid- to late-’90s Ween.

Whatever his influences, White, now 46 years old, makes good on his promise to keep evolving as an artist. For a long time, he longed to capture the rustic simplicity of the past. Now, he’s fully embracing the present and, by extension, playing a part in forging the future. Is this Jack White’s best album? With De Stiji and White Blood Cells out there, that’s a really tough sell, especially for something as off the wall as this. But it is his most interesting. (www.jackwhiteiii.com)

Author rating: 8.5/10

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Jack White's keeping it strange on Fear of the Dawn.

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FAV TRACKS: TAKING ME BACK, FEAR OF THE DAWN, THE WHITE RAVEN, INTO THE TWILIGHT, THAT WAS THEN THIS IS NOW, MORNING NOON AND NIGHT

LEAST FAV TRACK: WHAT'S THE TRICK

JACK WHITE - FEAR OF THE DAWN / 2022 / THIRD MAN / ALTERNATIVE ROCK

7/10

Y'all know this is just my opinion, right?


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