B for Bullshit: Truth, nonsense, and Jack White


An avowed Orson Welles obsessive, Jack White pinched an entire Citizen Kane monologue for his early White Stripes song “The Union Forever,” claiming at the time that he’d seen the film more than three dozen times; he’d go on to name both a record label and a publishing house after The Third Man, the film that gave us Welles’ famous cuckoo clock speech. Now comfortably into middle age and past the auteur-prodigy stage of his career, White has made his equivalent of F for Fake, the final movie Welles completed in his lifetime. The film—ostensibly about art forgers and the meaninglessness of “authenticity”—is a masterpiece of stylish misdirection. It is colorful, kinetic, and oddly charismatic. It’s also mostly bullshit, a film about fakers that relies heavily on smoke and mirrors. Throughout, Welles inhabits a spectral editing room, exposing us to all the seams and frayed edges as he assembles footage seemingly drawn from two or three unfinished features, filling in the blank spaces with magic tricks and recitations of Kipling, rhapsodizing about the romance of charlatanism even as his sleight-of-hand diverts our attention from the scrappiness of his narrative. Welles’ attention never settles anywhere long enough for the film to make a cogent argument, yet it’s not ineffective: Its round-about garrulousness and patchwork construction somehow feel like appropriate vehicles for Welles’ broader skepticism concerning canon, expertise, and the slippery concept of what’s “real.” Its style is its substance, and the movie manages to be evocative even when it isn’t entirely articulate.

White’s Boarding House Reach shares many of these same traits; it is indeed colorful, kinetic, and oddly charismatic, and it employs plenty of smoke-and-mirror tricks of its own. For his third solo album, White took to his own version of Welles’ haunted editing room, allowing himself the modern indulgence of ProTools for the first time in his career. He’d previously written off such technological extravagances as “cheating,” a pout that Welles likely would have found childish. (“What we professional liars hope to serve is truth,” Welles says in F for Fake. “I’m afraid the pompous word for that is ‘art.”) Any form of artistic “cheating” is merely a tool of the trade and a means to an end, and it’s impossible to imagine this particular Jack White album without a little behind-the-scenes cutting and pasting: Boarding House Reach is very much a patchwork, stitched together from disparate sources (some songs date back to his days in the little room with Meg; others to an abandoned collaboration with Jay Z) and cobbled together to offer a blur of sounds and ideas, lively and less interested in linear meaning than any previous Jack White project. Like Welles, he keeps things moving forward at all times, smoothing over the album’s loose ends with a confidence man’s fast-talking charm. The closest thing to a traditional Jack White song—a snarling rocker called “Over and Over and Over,” not coincidentally a song he’s been kicking around since the White Stripes days—collapses into the strange musique concrete of “Everything You’ve Ever Learned.” “Ice Station Zebra” has pounding pianos and cymbal splashes right out of Get Behind Me Satan, but it also has White speak-singing in a jittery hip-hop cadence spun from Odelay-era Beck. “What’s Done is Done” feels like a traditional country ballad while the organ-drenched “Why Walk a Dog?” scans as a mopey blues parody. “Corporation” and “Hypermisophoniac” are both swaggering grooves stitched together from congas, drum loops, keyboard effects, and eruptive guitar solos. Indeed, the entire record feels as though it’s vamping just to stay afloat, churning out nonsense, artifice, and sincerity to the point where it’s hard to tell if any of this is serious or if the whole thing’s just a put-on.

But if the Welles film proves anything, it’s that evasion and misdirection have their uses.  Like F for Fake, Boarding House Reach employs obfuscation for both functional and thematic purposes. The record’s restless momentum helps distract from its loose ends and its lack of center, making it seem like much less of a hodgepodge than it really is, while the jarring juxtapositions of modern effects and old-timey conceits offer a clean break from White’s reputation as a traditionalist and a curmudgeon. The willful difficulty of these songs feels important, too. White’s lyrics writhe and seethe toward some kind of human connection, craving the freedom found in creative expression even as they wrestle with their own confused, tongue-tied narratives. They can scan as bullshit, yet the whole point of the record seems to be finding sense in the nonsense, affirming our human need for understanding amidst our contradictions and our misconnections. So, something like the odd spoken word recitation “Abulia and Akrasia” works on a meta level: Its winding prose and dead-end punchline may scan as mere rubbish, but then again they may also suggest an artist struggling against his own fancifulness just to make a plainspoken request. And if you buy that (as Welles might say) you might also buy that “Ezmerelda Steals the Show” is the frustrated outburst of an artist who’s tired of playing to a sea of cellphones. (The song describes an audience whose “faces to their gadgets fall south.”) “Why Walk a Dog?” seems earnest in its anti-pet messaging, but it could also be taken as another parable of creative discontent; “These cats seem to blow/ Everyone’s mind but mine,” White sings, hands thrown up in exasperation. The bizarre genre mash-up in “Ice Station Zebra” proves its own point about the insufficiency of language to explain creative expression: “Hear me out, it ain’t easy but I’ll try to explain/ Everything in the world gets labeled and named/ a box, a rough definition, unavoidable/ Who picked the label doesn’t want to be responsible.” And then there’s “Corporation,” an if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em anthem of dehumanization: “Yeah I’m thinking about starting a corporation,” White howls. “Nowadays that’s how you get adulation.” It’s a letter of resignation from a man who’s tired of his humanity going undervalued by the faceless conglomerates of the world. His music can baffle, befuddle, and lean into misdirection, but at least he’s trying to connect—and with music far too strange to bear the fingerprints of corporate meddling.

As for Welles, there’s a moment in F for Fake where he invokes no less an artistic authority than Pablo Picasso, saying, “Art is a lie—a lie that makes us realize the truth.” Boarding House Reach may cheat, it may bullshit, and it may not always make sense—but White’s stylish sprawl offers its own kind of truth-telling.

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