Breaks out the riffs and impressionistic songwriting for a distinctive display of bluesy rock that’s sometimes distinctive to a fault
As Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell win the 2022 Oscar for Best Original Song, No Time To Die having fronted the James Bond movie of the same name, it is worth noting that Jack White penned his own Bond theme way back when. Another Way To Die was composed for 2008’s Quantum Of Solace as a duet with Alicia Keys, though it is not well-remembered or revered – ambitious, gnarly and eccentric in a way that epitomises much of his solo work. With Fear Of The Dawn, White breaks out the riffs and impressionistic songwriting for a distinctive display of bluesy rock, sometimes distinctive to a fault.
Taking Me Back opens the album with a bang, overdriven guitar and a punchy backbeat accompanying some characteristically witty vocals (“When I’m down on the floor, you’ll see / that no one will notice me / it’s breaking my back / when you drop the mail off to me / and make us both coffee / are you taking it black?”). Dazzling synth arpeggios complete the picture, and the intense mixing makes a relatively simple arrangement sound lively and maximalist.
Hi-De-Ho is less impressive and more baffling, a decent Q-Tip verse surrounded by bastardised Cab Calloway and limp innuendo: does having some hi-de-hi-de-ho cause this song to feel more coherent and less juvenile? However Eosophobia and its reprise bring things back on an even keel, its syncopated ostinato intersecting with dubby effects and lyrics about the titular aversion to sunrise. The crunchy electric piano of the reprise is especially delicious, the main melody inverted for the purpose of chordal vamping and distortion hitting that lo-fi sweet spot.
Fear Of The Dawn is generally at its best with a sick guitar line and busy rhythmic framework, virtuosic and domineering. This is the best explanation for why album closer Shedding The Velvet feels underpowered while What’s The Trick? ignites the record’s mid-section. The drums on the latter have a dizzying slapback effect on them, reminiscent of John Lennon’s Well Well Well but with more forward momentum, while strings of pentatonics ground the track in a rootsy rock vibe even as the verses suggest something more psychedelic (“two gentlemen of elegant appearance / in a state of bustitude / I give them coffee-coloured crystals / that’ll change their attitude”)
There are tracks that play with structure in a novel way – That Was Then, This Is Now comes remarkably close to rondo form – but Morning, Noon And Night indulges in a classic blues setup. We have our central groove, briefly passing through other chords before returning, and verses that ingratiate themselves nicely through repetition as White flicks between leering lust and broader reflections on the passing of time. The fact that several juicy solos balance out the song is even better, a knotty, fake-out coda the icing on the cake. At points like this a case can be made that Jack White has found the perfect compromise between rock tradition and modern production values. At other points the album can feel aimless, as Into The Twilight’s Robot Rock-esque beat cycles through elements without much success or memorability. First a pitched-up refrain, then William S Burroughs, then Bobby McFerrin, but to what end?
The White Stripes always embraced their sonic limitations, and similarly White finds himself returning to key ingredients he loves so much. There is little filter on the creativity here as White’s legacy allows him to explore and indulge odd ideas, but it could do with some productive channelling. Hence Fear Of The Dawn ends up a partially enjoyable but partially frustrating listen.