On Entering Heaven Alive, Jack White Doesn’t Commit to the Bit

Fear of the Dawn
, the first of two Jack White albums this year, was a doggedly strange affair. From the Cab Calloway-sampling, Q-Tip-featuring “Hi-De-Ho” to the noisy aggression of the title track, Fear of the Dawn was all over the place, simultaneously a boon and a detriment. Even though it was comically preposterous, at least it had entertainment value. Its follow-up, Entering Heaven Alive, bills itself as the softer, acoustic counterpart. When White plays an acoustic guitar, he typically throws his brazen eccentricities and half-baked experiments out the window. Whereas its predecessor held some modicum of interest due to its bizarre nature, Entering Heaven Alive simply fails to leave any sort of impression at all.

The conceptual duality of White’s 2022 albums brings to mind Foo Fighters’ 2005 double album In Your Honor, which had its louder, plugged-in material on the front end and all of its quieter, stripped-down material on the back end. In this case, White’s take on this loud-vs.-quiet approach is split into two distinct endeavors, leaving little room for any sort of dynamic variation on either album. Imagine if a Pixies cut was only a verse or only a chorus, but three minutes long. This was one of the primary issues with In Your Honor, as well, a criticism that the Foos attempted to remedy by merging both the loud and quiet on their next record, 2007’s Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace. Here, White has relinquished most of the elements that made his music with The White Stripes and the first two Raconteurs LPs so compelling: simple but effective songwriting; brash percussion courtesy of Meg White and Patrick Keeler; and garage-rock-indebted power chords. Instead, the polymath opts for rehashed ideas from the more dull moments of his solo records Blunderbuss and Lazaretto, resuscitating a strain of blues-purist fetishism that feels especially dated a whole decade after his debut solo record. The arrangements may be tasteful, but the execution is often mundane.

Still, this isn’t to say that Entering Heaven Alive is wholly devoid of any redemptive qualities. After the nadir of 2018’s Boarding House Reach, more traditional songs are welcome, given that this is what White excels at. Take the short and sweet “Apple Blossom,” or the anthemic stomp of “I’m Slowly Turning into You.” When White delivers a memorable chorus, it sticks with you. Boarding House Reach was so completely engulfed in its smog of experimentalism that it suffocated as a result. On this new album, he occasionally remembers to ground his studio trickery (the split, fuzzed guitars on “I’ve Got You Surrounded (with My Love),” the hard panning on “If I Die Tomorrow”) with more conventional song structures. These are some of the most appealing moments on Entering Heaven Alive, when White carefully threads the needle between his two modern modes of operation.

The one moment where he diverges from the otherwise straightforward path of Entering Heaven Alive is on the penultimate track, “A Madman from Manhattan.” Its lyrics are undeniably weird and conjure the nonsensical rhyming schemes of a Dr. Seuss book. “There’s a madman from Manhattan / There with a man’s hat and a floor mat made of satin / But this cat was not like this or that / But that which was aptly named for a man,” goes its opening salvo. Instrumentally speaking, however, it’s one of the album’s weaker songs. With its overly simplistic guitar line, it’s a staid effort that far overstays its welcome and fails to match its words’ defiant strangeness. “A Madman from Manhattan” is also an aberration because of how unconvincing the rest of the album’s lyrics tend to be. Fear of the Dawn’s lyrics may have been equally outlandish and hilarious, but Entering Heaven Alive’s writing, similar to its music, sounds unsure of itself.

Throughout the record, White falls back on platitudes: “If you’ll let me belong to you for richer or poorer” on “Help Me Along”; “I’m a fly on the wall, and you’re the queen of the bees” on “Queen of the Bees;” “Love is such a selfish thing / It’s always crying me-me-me” on “Love Is Selfish.” It doesn’t help that Entering Heaven Alive’s lyrics often contradict themselves, further diluting whatever vague points White tries to make. On the Pokey LaFarge-featuring “Help Me Along,” he professes the importance and beneficence of love, only to declare that it’s selfish and futile on the following track. Then it’s compounded by “I’ve Got You Surrounded (with My Love),” which comes directly after “Love Is Selfish.” Is White trying to say that he, or whomever the narrator is supposed to be, is solipsistic? Is he just trying to say that love itself is contradictory? It’s doubtful that he needed to spread such a facile message across three different songs.

There’s no doubt that White is among the most influential people in the music industry, whether in terms cultural (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather) or commercial (Third Man Records). Entering Heaven Alive, though, is tangible proof that the halcyon days of White’s best music are long gone. While fans wait to hear excellent songs like “Hotel Yorba” or “Ball and Biscuit” at his live shows, they’ll have to bide their time getting through the sludge of his latest cuts with nothing else to distract them. Entering Heaven Alive is seldom actively bad, but the most interesting component of either of White’s 2022 albums is that, well, there are two of them.

Grant Sharples is a writer based in Kansas City. He has contributed to MTV News, Pitchfork, Stereogum, The Ringer, SPIN and others. Follow him on Twitter @grantsharpies.