Fear of the Dawn finds Jack White as singular, strange, and knavish as ever, course correcting his recent musical missteps and settling into a pleasant and raucous middle ground.
Even when he’s ostensibly straightforward with his intentions, Jack White loves to misdirect. He has a notable flair for the dramatic, a penchant for eccentricity that has manifested into a recent string of albums marked by atypical artistic motivations. Keeping this in mind — and looking back now with a healthy amount of hindsight — it’s almost remarkable how cohesive The White Stripes functioned in terms of both their musicianship and their garage-rock sound, building upon each new release with a clearer sense of the direction they wanted to take their developing interests. But since separating from his “sister” and bandmate Meg in 2011, White’s subsequent solo career has played with audience expectations by giving them less and less of what they should be expecting.
There was the perfectly competent (if also a tad generic) Blunderbuss, his most easily accessible record to date, followed by the more unruly Lazaretto, before heading into no man’s land with the outlandish Boarding House Reach. To give credit where it’s due, the record wasn’t a simple subversion, or even a crafty in-joke (it’s difficult to discern if/when White is ever taking the piss): it was a complete sonic overhaul, the type of record one produces once they start throwing literally anything and everything against the wall and seeing what sticks. Ambitious in scope, yes; unfortunately, next to little actually did stick between all the overblown gospel choirs and cringe attempts at rapping. To this day, “Connected by Love” ranks as one of the most grotesquely insincere pieces of musicianship from the 2010s, just a complete dumpster fire of a track. Fortunately for White — and for the listening public at large — Fear of the Dawn is something of a course correction from Reach, where rock’s most quirked-up white boy has finally found a comfortable middle ground between these more garish impulses and approachable commercial viability, straddling the line between these two modes with a firmer sense of quality control. Better yet, he’s now able to channel said inducements into songs that have a consistent thematic throughline: to embrace the unfamiliar, to live in the shadowed veil of darkness, the only time and place that makes sense to an oddity like White. He puts it best on “Into the Twilight”: “Here in the night / Everything’s right.” Not the most original thesis for a body of work, but it’s something, and that’s surely better than nothing.
Besides, what’s the point of worrying about logistics when White’s still able to play the role of the grand trickster so knavishly? As mentioned above, he continues to merrily mislead listeners on exactly where any of his records will go at just about any given time. The opening three-track trek of the album constitutes a fairly conventional blues-rock progression, all tightly structured and intensely performed, before dipping into the baroque “Hi-De-Ho,” an anomalous homage to vaudeville legend Cab Calloway that’s equal parts eerie, strange, and hysterical. Nothing about the track’s broader elements should conceivably work at all — Calloway’s rough looped vocal sample, the frantic guitar playing, the goofy Q-Tip feature, the strong “fucking around” quality of the entire enterprise — and yet, all together, they form a song so cockamamie that it’s difficult not to respect the raw singularity of it. Which, at this point in his career, is perhaps the best and more advantageous lens through which to engage with White’s ever-growing body of work: to embrace this particular strand of strangeness. Or, at the very least, to do so when the end results are this engaging.
Published as part of Album Roundup — April 2022 | Part 2.