For his many devoted fans, Jack White is one of the last true guitar heroes of our age – a title he has upheld since the release of The White Stripes’ 2001 album White Blood Cells. Looking back at the tracklist for that LP, it strikes me as pretty astonishing that the duo was able to pack so much brilliant material into a record spanning only 40 minutes from start to finish. It’s an enduring testament to the fact that Jack White really does have it all. As a guitarist, songwriter, and performer, he’s got talent coming out of the metaphorical wazoo.
But talent is rarely innate. more often than not, it is inherited. Jack White’s talent lay in his ability to craft garage rock anthems with mainstream appeal, suffused with a distinctive outsider quality. Few artists embody this better than Captain Beefheart, whose album Trout Mask Replica was once described by White as “one of the most unique records in music history”.
He’s not wrong. Trout Mask Replica is utterly unlike any other record from the late ’60s. The cover art – which features Don Van Vliet in a top hat, wearing the face of a trout – says it all: this album is as grotesque, fragmented, anxiety-inducing and surreal as it looks. For 80 minutes, the listener is submitted to an oblique form of a-tonal and a-rhymic rock music that defies interpretation. More than that, it actively spits on interpretation. It is a mockery of ‘good taste’, capable of making the muddy churn of the Velvet Underground sound like a Mozart piano concerto.
So why does such an intentionally unpalatable record stand alongside The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together, and Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited as one of America’s most revered classic albums? For White, the chaos of Trout Mask Replica is a product of the unbridled creativity of its creators. The album’s opening track ‘Frownland; is the perfect example of how its strangeness serves to liberate the listener.
Whereas most pop hits of the day centred on a single repeated motif which all band members revolved around in unison, ‘Frownland’ features 21 individuals motifs, none of which serve as a centrepoint. None of these is played individually, and its nearly impossible to make out one motif from another when they’re all being played at the same time. And yet, because Captain Beefheart treats this chaotic approach as a creative parameter in itself, the album seems governed by an internal logic.
In this way, Troutmask Replica aims not only to shatter our understanding of what music should sound like but to remind us that the artist’s function is to reinvigorate and reimagine the boundaries of taste.