The Dead Weather: “Sea of Cowards”
Here in the age of instant Internet leaks and NPR First Listens, it’s increasingly rare for a major artist to release an album without first allowing fans to preview it online– a “listen before you buy” tactic meant to combat the proliferation of online piracy. Jack White is almost as major as artists come in 2010, but he’s hardly a conventional one, and so it should be no surprise that, in the weeks leading up to the release of his second Dead Weather album, he chose to preview the music by a slightly unorthodox means: Not by a straightforward online stream, but by a live, web-cammed “vinyl playback” session, conducted in real time, scratches and disc-flipping and all.
It might seem a little pretentious coming from anyone else, but the thing about Jack White is: He believes this stuff. He’s been a vinyl crusader, a doggedly analog rock and roller uncomfortable in a digital age, and so his vinyl playback scheme wasn’t a pose so much as a natural move for him. And so it is with Sea of Cowards, released less than a year after the first Dead Weather album and stuffed with more gothic howling and romantic/quasi-existential melodrama than any other band could handle without collapsing under all the pomp and posturing. But the thing is, it’s not a posture for the Dead Weather, nor is their quick turn-around time a matter of opportunism: White and his collaborators really believe in this stuff– campy though it may sound on paper– as a totally legit form of expression. And what’s more: They’re having a blast.
That’s the largest distinction between this and the band’s debut, Horehound. The debut was impressive in its tightly-controlled aesthetic and its slow-burning intensity, but Sea of Cowards is a 35-minute explosion of pure, devilish mayhem. And it sounds like White and the gang are giddy with delight; as dark and sleazy as the music and lyrics are, there’s never a sense of oppression, never a glimmer of a chance that the band is carrying some sort of burden; instead, it sounds like they’re having a howling good time, enjoying their chemistry together and allowing their half-crazed ideas to run wild.
And Sea of Cowards is indeed a pretty wild set: It may be relatively brief, but it’s also unrelenting, a connected suite of groove-based, riff-heavy numbers that only sometimes congeal into full-fledged, single-ready songs, instead preferring to ride along atop spooky organ grooves and sinister synth noodling, boozy and bloozy guitar work, and the unhinged growls of White and his vocal foil, Allison Mosshart. The two of them spin haunted tales of romantic distress that blow up in proportion until they’re just as much about love and hate, God and the devil, as they are any particular relationship gone sour; and if their gothic trappings and romantic torment are suggestive of boundless shadows and sadness, the album is less about angst than it is about giddy catharsis, White and Mosshart ratcheting up the drama for its own sake and spinning fiendishly wicked joke after joke.
In other words, it’s an astoundingly fun rock and roll record, notable for its intensity but also its release. It’s also an improvement over Horehound— not just because Jack sings more, not because Mosshart is more confident a frontwoman than ever, not even because the band plays with such riveting chemistry, but because the album is loose and confident in its own skin. No longer do they feel the need to prove themselves as something more than Jack’s latest whim; they prove themselves here as a band deserving of their own space and living out their own vision– not just a band to appease White fans until he reunites with Meg, but a band to be reckoned with.