Detroit is a city of extremes—of Fortune 500 wealth and epidemic poverty, of beautiful art-deco landmarks and ruins that are so apocalyptic, they’ve spawned a mini-tourism industry. Native son Jack White has likewise displayed a fondness for blinding contrasts, and the White Stripes’ candy-cane dress code was the least of it. Over the years, White has gamely pit bluesy authenticity against bullshit artistry; virtuosity against amateurism; punk credibility against Hollywood celebrity; small-business boosterism against Coca-Cola shilling. He’s a garage-rocker who’d rather chill on the front porch, a man who can write songs that fill football stadiums even though sports might just make him miserable.
Those paradoxical qualities have ultimately elevated White’s songbook above mere blues-rock revivalism. That tension is baked right into his music, where the scorching six-string pyrotechnics have routinely been hosed down by soothing sing-alongs. He’s an electric warrior and eccentric warbler, a Page and Plant in one perfect rock-star package. If he didn’t exist, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction committee would have to will him into existence.
However, a new collection wants you to think of White less as a self-mythologizing guitar god and more as a humble storyteller. Though its title may suggest a bounty of rough-draft demos, Acoustic Recordings 1998-2016 is really a straightforward, chronological cherry-pick of the songs in White’s discography (peppered with alternate mixes) that don’t feature electric guitar as the primary instrument. It’s White without the red, a Starbucks-worthy sanitization of a scuzz-rock icon. But even though it lops off one side of White’s split personality, Acoustic Recordings still provides a vivid portrait of White’s evolution over the past 18 years; like a phantom limb, the absence of noise becomes a form of presence.
As the compilation reasserts, White has been writing on an acoustic since day one, however, the kinds of acoustic songs he writes have changed considerably over the years. On the first White Stripes album, “Sugar Never Tasted So Good” offered White a chance to exhale between garage-rock grunts, though this suggestive serenade was spiritually in tune with that record’s devil-music worship. But already on 2000’s De Stijl, White was using the acoustic format less as an unplugged antidote and more a foundation for experimentation. With the radiant “I’m Bound to Pack It Up,” he used modest Zeppelin III means to telegraph Houses of the Holy ambitions. And on White Blood Cells hits like “Hotel Yorba” and “We’re Going to Be Friends,” the Stripes’ acoustic side became as crucial to constructing their childlike fantasias as their block-rockin’ rave-ups.
Acoustic Recordings’ first disc—charting the backwoods path to the Stripes’ 2007 swan song Icky Thump—could essentially be replicated by any Stripes completist dragging album tracks into a playlist. (The lone prize find is the hushed Get Behind Me Satan outtake, “City Lights,” the rare acoustic White tune to showcase the sort of guitar wizardry he brings to his electric repertoire.) So it’s appropriate that the more revelatory second disc should kick off with the first official release of “Love Is the Truth,” the winsome 2006 Coca-Cola jingle that symbolically came out around the same time White finally ditched Detroit-scene politics to set up shop in Nashville, heralding his transformation into a multimedia mogul. (The move also coincided with the formation of his supergroup the Raconteurs, represented here by countrified alternate takes of “Top Yourself” and “Carolina Drama.”)
Once the timeline reaches White’s 2012 solo debut, Blunderbuss, the Acoustic Recordings concept practically becomes moot, as the 90/10 ratio of electric/acoustic songs that once governed White Stripes records had effectively reversed (perhaps because White was channeling his most aggressive impulses to the Dead Weather). If White’s early acoustic material conveyed a certain bedsit intimacy, the vibe here is more communal kitchen-party hootenanny. With a wide cast of Music City pros at his side, tracks like “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” and “On and On and On” key in on the homespun spirit of the Band, the Faces, and Exile-era Stones. At this point for White, stripping down means gussying up: with its barrelhouse piano, fiddles and gospelized backing vocals, the “acoustic mix” of the Lazaretto romp “Just One Drink” is essentially honky-tonk glam-rock.
In his journey from the Gold Dollar to the White House, the blues has remained foundational to White’s acoustic songwriting, though, these days, it’s less about the bare-bones style than an existential state of mind. His acoustic catalog used to be a space where he could reveal a more gentle, whimsical side. But in his sometimes fraught adjustment to A-list celebrity—with all the publicized fistfights, divorces, shit-talking, and lawsuits that have come with it—White’s conversational writing has, at times, turned more tense and terse. “I want love to/Change my friends to enemies/And show me how it’s all my fault,” he seethes on Blunderbuss’ “Love Interruption” like a man scorned, and that wariness would become further entrenched on Lazaretto’s “Entitlement”: “Every time I’m doing what I want to, somebody comes and tells me it’s wrong/Whenever I’m doing just as I please, somebody cuts me down to me knees.”
More than just showcasing his tuneful side, Acoustic Recordings is a shrine to White’s self-sufficiency, in both the musical and ideological senses. After all, White has always been one to take matters into his own hands, whether he’s building guitars from some spare wire and wood, opening his own record press, or ensuring aliens have access to a turntable. And until he can get off this godforsaken planet and join his records in space, Acoustic Recordings stockpiles a great American songbook that can endure even after we’re all forced to live off the grid.