Jack White Keeps Pushing the Envelope on 'Entering Heaven Alive'

Jack White Keeps Pushing the Envelope on 'Entering Heaven Alive'
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Anyone who has learned guitar at any point in the past couple of decades has probably fumbled their way through a Jack White riff at some point — "Seven Nation Army" and "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" within the first week of picking up the instrument, "Lazaretto" and "Blue Orchid" a month or two after that, and "Fell in Love with a Girl" at whatever point they figured out power chords. For anyone hanging around a guitar store, his music is the perfect way to test out a fuzz pedal.

But in between the usual heavy riffs, White has been slowly dabbling in quiet acoustic work: the trad-folk of 2003's Cold Mountain soundtrack, the low-key ballads of 2005's Get Behind Me Satan, and the 2016 compilation Acoustic Recordings. For the first time, Entering Heaven Alive gives White an entire album to focus on that side of his oeuvre, making this the yin to this spring's noisy Fear of the Dawn's yang.

What exactly "acoustic" means is flexible here — a quality that makes Entering Heaven Alive an engrossing but slightly scattershot listen, despite its unifying sonic concept. The rich pianos of "A Tip from You to Me" and "A Tree on Fire from Within" harken back to the roots rock of 2012's Blunderbuss, while the stripped-down "Love Is Selfish" draws directly on the chord changes of White's Cold Mountain standout "Never Far Away."

Entering Heaven Alive is by no means a traditional singer-songwriter affair. Layered violins give "Help Me Along" an orchestral quality, which sounds a little saccharine in combination with a cutesy electric piano, while "Queen of the Bees" is an curious cabaret ditty built from plinky marimba and rickety organ. Late-album highlight "A Madman from Manhattan" rides a vibe-y, hypnotic groove that sounds like nothing else on the album — especially when the very next song is a bluegrass-tinged take on Fear of the Dawn's "Taking Me Back." The electrified blues licks that cut through from time to time — amidst the rustic arpeggios of "All Along the Way" or the weirdo soul-jazz of "I've Got You Surrounded (With My Love)" — sound like they're plucked straight out of White's signature heavy tunes.

Lyrically, White is in a philosophical mode that befits the more intimate production. "A Tip from You to Me" finds the 47-year-old offering sage advice ("Ask yourself if you are happy / And then you cease to be"), while he turns to self-doubt and questioning in the pearly gates reflections of "Please God, Don't Tell Anyone." Unlike the seething, cynical streak that often comes out in White's work, here he takes the edge off with lovestruck tributes, irreverence and a generally kinder tone.

With two albums coming in such quick succession, it's almost impossible to not compare them — and with that in mind, Fear of the Dawn is by far the stranger and more exciting of the two, showing that White is at his best when unleashing noise from his electric guitar. The songs of Entering Heaven Alive probably won't become the genre touchstones that White's heavier tunes are, but they're a fresh glimpse into a songwriter who, long considered a retro traditionalist, now continues to get more unpredictable with each album cycle. (Third Man Records)