Four years after his polarizing and wildly creative project Boarding House Reach, garage rock trailblazer Jack White has returned with yet another helping of his eccentric and invigorating twists and turns on the genre that he mastered long ago through his various bands. The first of two albums that he plans to release this year, Fear of the Dawn finds White facing some big changes in his life and feeling a little apprehensive about moving on to the next phase – though his recent on-stage proposal to his new partner shows that he got over some of those fears. While White’s themes and lyrical contributions usually do pique the interest, once again the true star of the show is his spellbinding guitar work and his willingness to continue innovating at any cost, throwing ideas haphazardly against the wall with such admirable passion for his craft that even the ones that don’t work perfectly still come across as charming. While so many rock musicians – veteran and up-and-coming – still seem to be stuck in the past, White is still the only musician with the kind of platform that he has that’s willing to get a little weird with it.
I’d like to think that White’s decision to open the project with a song like “Taking Me Back” was intentionally done to poke at the fans who didn’t appreciate his more experimental turn on his previous album. On the surface, it seems like the most basic, standard garage rock song here that could have fit into his earlier catalogue – but as the song progresses closer to its end, it steadily begins to unravel. The guitar tones that the track is built are so compressed, fuzzy and distorted that they almost function like the kind of punchy industrial synths that might be used for an EDM drop – and yet, the mix is strikingly clean in contrast to most muddy, guitar-filled mixes today. White’s performance contains his usual theatricality, but the magic across this whole project is the wide variety of technically impressive guitar riffs that appear once, fleetingly, in any transitional moment as White simply has fun with it. The brief title track that follows feels like a continuation of the opener, going into more of a prog-rock Muse-style zone that acts as yet another twist and interpolation of the standard formula at its core – plus, the guitar solos on this track are pretty wild. “The White Raven” continues the early madness with some aggressive guitar blasts verging on heavy metal mixed with Tom Morello-esque effects-driven work. White sounds vocally frantic, before we get a segment of more soloing, ghostly falsetto vocals, and a random ding. It’s all an exhilarating rollercoaster ride.
The opening run leads into what might be the most experimental track of all in “Hi-De-Ho,” which features legendary A Tribe Called Quest rapper Q-Tip. Taking a sample from Cab Calloway – which won’t be the last creative use of sampling across this project, yet another way that White is innovating and breaking out of his genre’s rigid rule set – the track opens with sparse, cinematic guitar stabs and Calloway sounding like he’s speaking in tongues before Q-Tip drops a speedy verse over a killer bass riff from White. White’s own contributions are as bizarre as ever with some absolutely deranged-sounding ad-libs, but the musical world of the track is such a novelty that this one will be on heavy rotation. The track “Eosophobia” – another way to say the album’s title – actually receives a reprise later on in the tracklisting, as White continues the jam session vibe of constantly reworking the frameworks he presents here. Another delightfully disorienting series of sounds, White lyrically trying to exert some control over the passage of time over some brighter guitar riffs turns into an invigoratingly quick plucked section near the end resembling old school country rock before turning the amps to 11 for the conclusion. The reprise kicks off with the country riff, itself transforming into other cascading instrumental work with a variety of new tones.
While White does offer some sparse additions of his own voice, the track “Into the Twilight” is essentially a collage of samples over one of the most infectious grooves White has ever created, and it’s likely to end up being one of the best songs of the year. Hearing White bring together samples from The Manhattan Transfer, Bobby McFerrin scatting, Hatsune Miku and an interview with beat writer William S. Burroughs and have it all work is nothing short of genius. After a brief instrumental interlude, he follows it up with another scorcher in “What’s The Trick?” For all the experimentation with instrumental across the project, these two tracks have some of the least, making up for it with the insanity of the vocals on display and becoming some of the most memorable ones. Here, White sounds like a deranged preacher as his half-rapped voice breaks, desperately trying to follow through on a romantic connection over one of his classic garage rock riffs.
The project’s final moments see a juxtaposition of the only time that White takes the sonic whiplash a little too far and the track that feels the least experimental on the project. “That Was Then, This is Now” is almost impossible to describe based on all the shifts it goes through, feeling like a TikTok compilation in song form due to the complete switches every 20 or 30 seconds – still, it’s a very fun ride to experience. “Morning, Noon and Night” is still White operating at full mastery of his craft, dropping a standard blues rocker, but compared to all the other stimulating and challenging work on display it feels a little muted. The closing track, “Shedding My Velvet,” sees White finally ready to embrace the dawn as his weird and wonderful self, the jazzy pianos on the track a welcome addition after all the bombast.
“Better to illuminate than merely to shine. You say this all the time, and you’re right,” are the final words that we hear on the project – and White certainly seems to have followed the advice that he received from the song’s mystery recipient. White has done this long enough that he knows how to shine in just about every way – with his last two albums, however, he’s offering something a little more meaningful.
Favourite Tracks: Into The Twilight, Hi-De-Ho, What’s The Trick?, Taking Me Back, Shedding My Velvet
Least Favourite Track: Morning Noon and Night