Last weekend, White boiled down his sprawling "Boarding House Reach" to its most audience-friendly essentials when he appeared on "Saturday Night Live."

jack white photo
Jack White, by David James Swanson

Jack White will play the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell on Sunday, May 6 on the Acura Stage at 3:35 p.m. After releasing the all-over-the-map Boarding House Reach last month, he appeared as his most efficient self this weekend on Saturday Night Live. He performed “Over and Over and Over” and “Connected by Love” on the show, presenting himself in the familiar position as the last blues/garage rocker flying the flag for classic rock values. 

One of those values is indulgence, and it’s one that White has expressed carefully in the past as it showed up almost everywhere but in his music. His displays of control often feel like skirmishes in a one-man war with the 21st century—a thought the album title echoes as its title idiom lost context after World War II. But that contrarian streak didn’t stop 2012’s Blunderbuss or 2016’s Lazaretto from rocking in a guitar-first, blues-based way that felt retro when done by most of his contemporaries.

The SNL performances steered around Boarding House Reach’s more eccentric moments including the odd run of songs from “Why Walk a Dog?” through White’s rap debut on “Ice Station Zebra,” all of which sound like his version of casual fun, though none of them are truly casual or really fun. Rolling Stone’s Will Hermes writes that the album is “spiritually hungry, collectively driven and, instructively, a little bit lost” as White tries to find his place in a #MeToo #BlackLivesMatter world. How do you make classic rock in a moment at odds with rock’s historically troubled relationship with race and gender? 

White’s answer on Boarding House Reach seems to have been letting go of his overdetermined, prescriptive and proscriptive rules of music generation. He called a truce with the technology and sounds that dominate music today, and there is something charming about that. Still, White often sounds as hard to love on the album as he is in concert when he sends out emissaries to talk fans out of taking pictures of his show. He wants to be connected by love, but he doesn’t give that special someone a good reason to connect to him. In fact, the person White seems most impressed by is himself, which does make the album oddly compelling. He’s simultaneously working on a relationship and taking a little Me Time. He shook off his old musical orthodoxy, but White can’t stop looking in a mirror and mistaking it for a window.