Album: Fear of the Dawn
Artist: Jack White
Released: April 8th, 2022
Highlights: Taking Me Back, Hi-De-Ho, Esophobia, That Was Then This Is Now
Be it as the creative leader of The White Stripes or in the first two records of his solo career, Jack White displayed clear reverence for the traditional genres that gave birth to rock, with blues usually coming off as his greatest source of inspiration. It is true that, in a stylistic sense, what Jack did alongside Meg was rather different from the work he put out on his own: with her, he banged out garage tunes that echoed the utmost simplicity of blues; whilst alone, his tone was more subdued, polished, and sometimes intimate. Nevertheless, in both cases, his music, though sprinkled with quirky flights, remained anchored on tradition and it is safe to say most of his fanbase would be thoroughly satisfied if Jack opted to build a lengthy career out of those flavors. But then 2018 came around and his third solo effort, “Boarding House Reach”, was unleashed upon the world, proving that Jack White is a pretty restless individual.
Obviously, one could already have made that deduction by looking at his numerous side-projects or reading between the lines of the last two The White Stripes albums, but “Boarding House Reach” made that reality more blatant than ever because it burst through the boundaries of the genres Jack tended to explore. In essence, it was a rock record, but that label only truly stuck occasionally, because Jack seemed far more concerned with stretching himself towards avant-garde territory via electronic layers, strange production touches, and a songwriting approach that skewed his usual tendency towards pop hooks. In a way, it seemed that sensing rock music was no longer mainstream, Jack concluded that the time was ripe for it to be pushed to odd places; after all, since only the aficionados are still tuning in, one might as well take them for a wilder ride.
Because of the drastic artistic break that “Boarding House Reach” represented, “Fear of the Dawn” arrives alongside some degree of doubt, as one naturally wonders if that album was just a brief strange detour or if White is entirely committed to cementing himself as the king of rock and roll weirdness. As it turns out, the answer lies somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, because even though “Fear of the Dawn” shows no interest in reuniting the singer-songwriter with what used to be his style of composition, it does bring the music back to a firmer garage-rock format. In other words, the songs in “Fear of the Dawn” are still positively weird and initially unwelcoming, but most – if not all – of them could be executed in their entirety by a band armed with nothing but guitars, bass, drums, and a microphone; something that did not apply to “Boarding House Reach”.
This partial reconnection with musical past is made evident by how numerous of the tunes here could conceivably be done by The White Stripes themselves. While all of Jack’s previous solo works had at least one or two tracks with such a characteristic, in “Fear of the Dawn” this feature applies to nearly the entire album, as the majority of the tracks expose a very simple recipe: pounding riffs, guitars that are played at distortion levels that bring them within an inch of utter destruction, performances that are utterly savage in their rawness, and unexpected instrumental left turns where Jack goes atomic as he allows himself to be overcome by primal instincts only channeled by those who are very much into what they are doing.
One could point out that such list of ingredients is not too different from what The White Stripes brought to the table, which could make “Fear of the Dawn” a retread, and that argument is absolutely correct. However, a couple of components contribute to making the album radically distinct from what came before it, and the first is songwriting. With his former beloved band, Jack – whether intentionally or not – wrote for the masses, letting loose plenty of pop hooks that made the duo’s inherent wildness and oddity more universally palatable. In “Fear of the Dawn”, as it was the case in “Boarding House Reach”, Jack is writing for the converted (or perhaps for himself), which makes the record a work that is not concerned with delivering melodic sugar, focusing instead on the freewheeling energy that exists within the utter abandon of garage rock. Here, Jack is not trying to charm anyone into listening; contrarily, he is actually daring his audience to keep watching as he goes completely ballistic.
The second element, and possibly the most important one, that adds character to “Fear of the Dawn” is the sheer breadth of the sounds Jack is able to extract out of his guitar. In fact, it is this particular facet that is responsible for building a stylistic link between “Fear of the Dawn” and its predecessor. It feels like even if he loved all strange noises contained in “Boarding House Reach”, Jack was somewhat miffed he reached for them without using his signature instrument; consequently, this time around he enacts revenge upon the world by causing the guitar to emit a variety of textures that the average musician would extract out keyboards, synthesizers, or other electronic devices. Because of that, it would be no exaggeration to claim “Fear of the Dawn” finds a way to break into new territory for the guitar right in the middle of an era where there are rumors the once world-dominating instrument is done for good.
Given there is a prevalence of garage rock tunes that bring The White Stripes to mind, it goes without saying that the weird sounds of Jack’s guitar are mostly used in that context, creating – therefore – nastier and experimental takes on that music, which wisely employ that artistic freedom to boast rarely witnessed song structures and a good amount of instrumental freak-outs. However, in another detail that ties it to “Boarding House Reach”, “Fear of the Dawn” displays some eclecticism, opening the way for moments when the guitar is deployed to create hip-hop grooves, little flourishes that recall electronic beats, and other touches that sometimes are used in standalone songs but that occasionally also add unique flavor to cuts grounded on garage rock.
Because of its frantic experimental soul and the shunning of traditional hooks, “Fear of the Dawn” can get a bit lost on its carefree spirit, and during moments like those a few tracks can land on the ears like they are heavy, loud, and weird just for the sake of being so, exhibiting therefore a lack of purpose. Nevertheless, the thrill of listening to it will remain intact through most of the way to those who have love for noisy guitar-playing. And besides being the heaviest album Jack has ever put out, be it alone or as part of a band, it is also – up to its release – the most genuinely interesting record of his solo adventure, as it balances his newly found wish to take rock music to new grounds with what he does best as an instrumentalist: extracting a tuneful and refreshing racket out of electric guitars.