The last time listeners heard Jack White, he was heading into the inky twilight, singing “Hi-De-Ho” with the late Cab Calloway and joining William S. Burroughs for a naked lunch. His guitar as electrifying as his icy blue hair, the former White Stripes frontman espoused eosophobia and eclecticism, owning his eccentricity for Fear of the Dawn.
Three months later, White emerges from the shadows, stepping out into strange, celestial light. On Entering Heaven Alive, released July 22, the musician leans into his mellower, folksier side, but he shows he’s not without his experimental tricks.
Recording in lazaretto-like lockdown, White did not initially intend to create multiple albums during the pandemic. However, as he found his music falling into two distinct styles, the records took shape — seemingly as different as night and day, yet illuminating the elusive musician all the same.
At the end of Fear of the Dawn, gritty guitar riffs yield to gentle acoustics, a soft closing for a screeching record. Entering Heaven Alive picks up where its predecessor left off, opening with an understated guitar. As bluesy keys bounce beneath oblique maxims, the starter track “A Tip from You to Me” imparts wisdom but withholds clear understanding. A seasoned lyricist, White succeeds in writing with veiled, yet poignant, meaning.
Playful strings accompany “Help Me Along,” a wholesome ode to love and commitment. Its innocent, childlike air may seem an unlikely turn for White — whose most celebrated works include “Seven Nation Army” and “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” — but for longtime fans, it’s reminiscent of the White Stripes’ “We’re Going To Be Friends.” With a songbook spanning decades, White cannot be contained to just blues or garage rock; on “Help Me Along” and “Queen of the Bees,” his sound oozes honey sweet.
Outwardly, Entering Heaven Alive seems a dramatic departure from Fear of the Dawn, dominated by unplugged ballads and loving affirmations. However, both projects effectively blur the boundaries between light and dark. “All Along the Way” begins with a Death Cab for Cutie-esque journey into the shadows, but it dances with hope in intriguing, revelatory ways. As the central guitar riff assumes a reggae-like jump, White’s voice ascends into a familiar yell-sing: “We’ve come so far into the light from the dark,” he declares, and his words ring true in more ways than one.
A stellar track on its own, “I’ve Got You Surrounded (With My Love)” sounds a bit tonally disjointed from the rest of the album. With galvanizing guitar riffs and reverberating vocals, the track sounds more consistent with Fear of the Dawn, though a jazzy piano anchors it to the current project. Even when the track melds together the records’ contrasting sounds, it pulls the listener too far out of Entering Heaven Alive, and it raises questions about White’s criteria for organizing his songs.
When White successfully blends the records, he does so subtly, gradually. “Madman from Manhattan” starts as a compelling, consonant-laden mouthful spoken over a lithe bass line. Just before the bridge, White introduces the riff from Fear of the Dawn’s “Eosophobia” — a song intentionally lacking in lyricism (“If these words come out too simple, please forgive my grammar,” White sings). Just as the madman reaches divine revelation, the song loops back to the first verse. “Just on the brink of a breakthrough,” White repeats at the end, though it’s less of a taunt and more of an observation.
Putting a jazzy twist on “Taking Me Back,” Entering Heaven Alive ends where Fear of the Dawn begins. White transforms the older, explosive opening track into a nostalgic treasure trove of folksy fiddles, jangly pianos and perfectly plucked guitars. In the final seconds of “Taking Me Back (Gently),” one can hear the opening riff of its predecessor. The project comes full circle.
“It’s better to illuminate than to merely shine,” White repeats at the end of Fear of the Dawn — and he’s right. The relationship between his last two records may not be immediately obvious, but with each listen, it becomes clear that one cannot exist without the other. Each half reveals and revisits discordant pieces of White’s artistry, yet they come together to form a coherent whole. Steady, as he goes.